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HEART OF THE BEAST

based on rhysand from a court of thorns and roses

a story of a villain who deserved more

by firey

BLURB

Ashlyn was a lone hunter in the midst of a colony of cats trying to survive. They were the leftovers of what had been the great StormClan. Ash will do anything she can to help her colony survive, even if it meant plunging into the depths of the Dark Woods to try to find prey for her starving friends and family. But what she finds is a beast who captures her and holds her prisoner.

But the Beast is just a cat, and Ashlyn will find that discovering who the Beast really is will uncover something she will never be able to forget: the heart of the beast.

(*note: the font is FairyDustB to see full effects download that font)

ONE

The forest is quiet, too quiet. The eerie darkness makes me want to dart back out towards the meadows near our camp but I refuse to back down. The last time I had hunted in the meadows, I had come out with no prey. I was a hunter of the Colony for stars' sake. I should be able to catch something.

I've already caught two mice and a rabbit in the forest. It proves to be plentiful with prey, though the eternal stillness makes me shiver. I hurry through the forest, carrying my prey and scrambling through the undergrowth as I rush to make it back to the meadows and then the camp. The forest has always been off-limits but lately I've been edging towards it, desperate to catch prey to feed the Colony.

I loose a sigh when I finally emerge into the flowery fields of the meadow. I cast a swift glance behind me and I can't help but notice the way the light never pierces through the stillness and the darkness of the forest. It was a place cast in eternal shadow.

As I trot through the meadows back towards camp, I admire the fields around me, grateful to be back in a place where sunshine soaked through my bones and I could feel the soft grass billowing beside me in the wind. A zephyr blew by and I tilt my head towards it, savoring the breeze.

Camp is an uproar when I return. I spot my best friend immediately and she bounds over, grinning. "You caught prey!"

"Of course I did," I scoff, "I'm a hunter for a reason."

Usually, she-cats kept to nursing new-borns and sorting out jobs within the camp. The toms were the hunters and the fighters for the Colony, defending our home to keep us safe. But I am one of the few she-cats who dare to step up to the challenge and I do not regret it.

My best friend sniffs at the prey. "You didn't get this from the meadows, Ash," she blinks in surprise.

"No, Jade, I didn't." I drop off the prey where the small meager fresh-kill pile is. "I went to the forest."

"Ashlyn!" Jade's tail sticks up in surprise. "Nobody is supposed to enter the forest. You know the rumors of the Dark Woods! Rumor has it that--"

"That the Beast runs loose within, leashed to his Mistress. They take prisoners and whoever enters the forest never comes back out alive." I interrupt, heading towards our shared den. All the she-cats share one den, regardless of their job or status in the Colony. "Look, I'm okay, Jade. There wasn't any Beast and I'm certainly still alive."

Jade frowns. "Promise you won't go back there again, Ash."

"There's no prey leftover in the meadows!" I lash my tail. "I'm one of the best hunters in the Colony and I couldn't catch a single mouse in the meadows. We need a new place to hunt. The Dark Woods are just rumors. There's nothing within that forest that can kill us but our own imaginations."

But I can't help but linger on the way the shadows had clung to the trees, how there hadn't been a single bird singing within the trees. It had been so silent, as if the lack of noise hung over the area like a fog. I give an involuntary shiver but I shake my head quickly. What are we? Mice?

Once upon a time, the Colony had been StormClan, a mighty and feared Clan that ruled over this area in peace and harmony. The cats had been happy, and there hadn't been anyone to worry about. Then there had been a Great War and cats--or demons the story said--came out of the Dark Woods and took StormClan apart piece by piece. When the leader, Cherrystar, no longer could stand the thought of the beasts of the Dark Woods conquering StormClan, she made a treaty with the Dark Woods' creatures.

StormClan would become just a colony of cats. Rogues, we would be called, no longer Clan cats. And we would stick to the meadows and whatever prey we could find out in the desolate landscape while the Dark Woods were "returned" to them.

Except those are just stories. We don't have Clan names; we are really just rogues living together. I don't believe in those stories, even if Jade does.

"I'm going to sleep," I mutter, pushing past the light brown tabby, heading for my nest. I had to rest up if I am to hunt tomorrow again.

~

I approach the Dark Woods again, fear churning in my belly. Jade had made me promise that I would stay out of the forest, yet I couldn't help but be drawn towards it again. I had to get prey. Yesterday, nearly everyone had something to eat, including me.

Mist hangs in the air and I shake it off my pelt, trying to keep warm and dry. The mud squelches underneath my paws and I wince slightly.

Stop it, I tell myself, you're being silly. Those stories are just stories.

I get far into the forest, unable to catch anything. A squirrel had ran out right under my nose yet I had been too slow to catch it. I am distracted from the stories Jade had reminded me of. Stories that shouldn't be bothering me because they weren't real.

That's when I hear the crash of pawsteps that is coming thundering towards me.

I freeze, my mind blaring with panic. The trees. I dart up a tree as fast as I can, my claws slipping on the slick bark. Finally, after nearly tearing out one of my claws, I make it to the first branch and huddle there, shivering as two lithe black shapes emerge from the darkness.

For a moment, I think they are wraiths. They move like shadows, slipping through the undergrowth, sniffing at the ground. I hold my breath, fearful that they will catch my scent and look up.

"Someone's been here recently," one growls, and I realize that they are really just cats. Or at least, they take the form of a cat. "A she-cat from the Colony."

"I thought they knew to stay away from here," a she-cat's voice floats up to me. She halts and I try not to tremble as I wait in the tree right above her. "Gosh, you'd think they wouldn't be so dense as to try to challenge the Mistress. They're fools if they think they have any right to step foot in the Dark Woods."

"This scent is too recent for us to ignore. We better find them before one of the Mistress's cronies find her."

I'm shivering so hard that my paw slips, just as the two cats seem to move on. I let out a yelp as I come crashing down from the tree, right at their paws. The she-cat stares at me with jeweled blue eyes. Her eyes are ice-blue, and I look away immediately.

"I'll leave," I stammer, trying to find my footing. "I swear I'll never come back here again--"

"Too late," the she-cat purrs as she lunges for me.

I barely twist away in time. I spin around to race back towards the meadows but I slam into the hard muscle of the tom. He holds me tightly. "You're a scrawny little thing. You should have known better than to wander these woods alone."

"Let's bring her to Ray. He'll know what to do with her."

"We'll bring her to the Beast," the tom says with an edged voice. My blood freezes. The she-cat merely rolls her eyes and they begin to drag me along.

"No! Please," I beg, "I swear I'll stay away from now on if you just let me go. I need to feed my friends. They're all starving because we don't--"

"Don't say anything you'll regret," the she-cat says coldly, "there are ears everywhere in these woods. The Mistress will be more than glad to hear that the Colony is weakening. I would watch your tongue, she-cat, or else you will find yourself without friends to return to."

I'm shaking so hard that they practically lift me off my paws and carry me through the dark forest. We draw close to a swath of large vines and the tom pushes right through them. A clever camp entrance, one that nobody would ever notice. If they were letting me see it, then I really wasn't going to come out of here alive.

The camp is larger than I realize. Dens dot the entire area and it is large. I can't see the end of the camp and there are cats everywhere, inhabiting parts of the dens. "It's a village," the tom murmurs as he hauls me through the place. A village to house so many cats. "This is one of the smaller villages. The Mistress watches over the main city."

The Colony was a fraction of this place. I try not to admire the dens around me, though I notice the flourishing amount of prey found here. So much prey for so many cats. The Colony would thrive if we owned even just a small part of the woods.

A huge den pressed against a stone cliff looms in front of me, swallowing my vision. The tom finally sets me down. "You might want to walk in for this." He grunts, "You won't make a good impression by being carried."

"Come," the she-cat shoves me into the den. I stumble, and blink furiously, trying to adjust.

A dark laugh comes from within and my blood curls with fear. I nearly collapse, but the she-cat and tom hold me up. "What do we have here?" A smooth voice purrs.

When my eyes adjust, I realize that standing before me is the Beast himself.

TWO

The Beast must be some sort of a joke. He isn't hairy or monstrous, or any of the traits I had imagined him to be. The nickname "Beast" doesn't really imply what I'm seeing.

In front of me is the handsomest tom I have ever met. His face is a mask of perfection and his glossy black pelt shines even in the gloomy den. His eyes are a rich golden color and I catch myself admiring the way they reflect the dim light coming in from the entrance.

He is watching me with those golden eyes. Inside, there are flecks of silver within them. "Jasmine, Everett, what have you caught for me today?"

"Just a she-cat, Ray. A Colony one."

The black tom grimaces. "Jas, I've told you before, don't address me by my name around these cats. We keep a strict rule around here. They call me 'sir' or they simply call me the Beast. 'Ray' doesn't really spark fear in people, now do they?"

"This idiot already slipped once," Everett grumbles, "at least she didn't call you Ravyn."

"Now whose the idiot?" Jas snaps. "You just told this she-cat his full name."

Ravyn sighs. "Can we please not argue about my name in front of...?" He glances at me slyly, a smirk on his lips. "I forgot to ask you for your name, darling."

"I'm not your darling," I reply stiffly, "My name is Ashlyn."

"Ashlyn," Ray gives a ghost of a smile. He draws closer with lethal calmness that makes me still. I can't help but stare into his golden eyes. "Your friends call you Ash I presume?" When I nod slightly, he halts right in front of me. He's so close that I can feel his breath on my cheek. "What a beautiful name for a beautiful she-cat."

The she-cat, Jasmine, snorts. Ray pulls away, flicking his tail. "Take darling Ash to her...den. I will deal with her soon after I finish my business with the rest of these cats. Give her prey and water but watch guard please. I can't have Ashlyn running wild in my village."

I bare my teeth at him but Jasmine and Everett drag me further into the den. Before we can make it past the main room, two other guards tug a spitting prisoner in with them. Ravyn's face becomes a mask of calm and cruelness, the mask of the Beast that I had first seen him as.

I want to stay and see what Ravyn will do, but his two guards take me into the darkness.

~

When the bramble screen creaks open, I'm awake in an instant, jumping to my paws and unsheathing my claws. "Relax," a voice drawls, "I'm not here to do anything but talk to you."

My eyes have adjusted to the darkness of the den I'm being kept in, and I watch as the Beast enters my cell. His golden eyes dance in the dim lighting and I can see the silver clearly from this close. "How are you faring, Ash darling? I hope this set up isn't too drab."

"I'm not your darling," I say crossly.

Ravyn just smirks. The cruelness I had seen on his face just hours before is gone. In its place is an infuriating tom who is toying with me. "Come, Ashlyn. I have needs for you. I don't think you want to be cooped up here any longer anyway."

"I don't want anything to do with you, Beast."

Ravyn's right ear flicks at that. "Beast?" He asks coolly, "Is that what cats in the Colony call me these days? Do I look like a beast to you?"

No, he really doesn't, but I don't actually know this tom. "Will I be meeting your Mistress as well?" I say stiffly in response.

Ravyn snorts. "She is not my Mistress any more than you are my darling. But yes, you will be meeting her soon enough. I thought you and I could get acquainted first. I have things to deal with in my 'throne room' so to speak and it's always more fun to do them with a beautiful plaything sitting on my lap."

I bristle at this words but he leads me out. I'm grateful to get out of the dark, rancid cell, but I don't find pleasure in being Ravyn's plaything. "You can call me Ray, by the way." Ravyn smirks at me again, his face a picture of perfection. "Or Ravyn if you must."

"Beast."

Ravyn lets loose a sparkling laugh, one that doesn't match the cold demeanor from earlier. "You and I will have fun together, Ashlyn."

I can almost imagine us being friends, had we met under different circumstances. But when we enter Ravyn's throne room, there are three prisoners pinned to the floor. Ravyn's Beast mask comes back and I find myself trying to step away from him.

His tail loops around me, trapping me. His smile is an epitome of beauty, yet it is a completely cold smile. I look away immediately, but I let him drag me closer so that he can lean down and breath softly against my cheek. "Play along, Ash, darling, for there are cats watching us today."

I don't understand what's the importance of me acting as if Ravyn owns me, but I have on choice but to let him "play" with me. Ravyn's tail strokes my flank and I almost arch against his touch. The three prisoners are blatantly staring at us, their baleful eyes like hot brands against my skin. Ravyn leads me to where he was sitting earlier, and I recognize Jasmine and Everett standing guard. They give Ravyn a curt nod and nothing more. They don't spare a single glance at me.

Ravyn surveys the three prisoners cowering on the floor. "Guards, what do we have here today? More prisoners for me to punish?" He smiles slightly down at them, and I refrain from flinching at the deadness in his eyes. This is the Beast the Colony had told stories about, one that would take pleasure from hurting others.

One that could hurt me and relish it.

I pull away from him again but Ravyn's hold tightens. "Stay here," he hisses, softly enough so that only I can hear, "you will be making a scene if you step out of my hold. She is watching."

Understanding dawns me and I glance out at the crowd. I hadn't realized there were only a few cats gathered in the throne room, letting me spot the golden she-cat sitting in the back, watching us with her cunning violet eyes. I shiver at the power I see in them.

The Mistress.

I stop struggling against Ravyn and let him focus on the prisoners again. One guard clears his throat. "Sir, we found these three trying to sneak into the camp without permission. They are not the Mistress's cats. They are believed to be part of the rebel forces that are trying to assassinate you and the Mistress."

The Beast strokes his tail over my flank, looking nonchalant and bored. "Oh? How unfortunate. It's a shame that they think they can get past my guards and murder me."

"What do you want us to do with them?"

Ravyn's eyes flit up for one second, a swift glance at his Mistress, obviously pondering over why she was watching in the back rather than taking control. Or was there more going on that involved me?

"Take them to the prison. My guards will deal with them soon enough." He waves a tail at Jas and Everett, who bow their heads.

One of the prisoner spits at Ravyn's feet, barely missing me. "You think you rule this entire city but you don't. One day you will have a revolution in your paws and there will be nothing you can do to stop it. We are only the first of many."

Ravyn stands and walks slowly down towards the prisoner. His eyes are an emotionless pit of death and he smiles coldly for the prisoner to see. "You really think so?" He asks calmly, his eyes searching hers. He purrs softly. "You're a fool to think that."

The prisoner lunges for Ravyn but he flips out of the way, a smooth jump back. The guard restrains her again. "Take them away," he says dismissively, "I've had enough of them."

All leave except for the golden she-cat waiting at the entrance. The guards bow low when they see her and pass by without a word. Jas and Everett remain where they are.

"You used to love to make a scene out of them, Ravyn," the Mistress clicks her tongue, "I'm disappointed in how much you've changed. Where is your lust for power and despair? I haven't raised you to be soft-hearted. I've raised you to be my Beast."

"You didn't raise me to be anything," Ravyn counters coolly, "I didn't feel like it today. Perhaps next time."

The golden she-cat's eyes rest on me. "And who is this?"

"She is my new pet," Ravyn walks back towards me, his eyes roaming over me. I sit still as he uses his tail to draw me closer. "Do you like her?"

The Mistress curls her lip. "A bit on the drab side but she'll do. My Beast requires something to play with from time to time. Don't let this distract you from our duty, Ravyn. I expect a full report tomorrow. We must act quickly." With that, she turns and strolls out of Ravyn's den.

Jas lets loose a sigh and Ravyn untangles himself from me. He steps a healthy step away and turns to his guards. "Go to the prisoners tonight. You know what to do."

Everett casts a quick glance at me. "We can take her too, Ray. You're playing a dangerous game with Averitha by keeping Ashlyn here."

Averitha, the name of the Mistress. I store away this information. There is so much that they are hiding from me, but that is to be expected. I've barely been here for a day. Ravyn shakes his head. "She knows of Ash's presence now. If I am to continue my facade of being her Beast, she will need to see the act. Ashlyn darling is my best option if I don't wish to make a spectacle of our enemies."

Jas frowns. "Averitha is getting impatient with our game, Ray. She came today because she expects you to start doing some action rather than sit on your tail here. We can't hide it from her any longer, Ray. She'll find out what we've been doing."

Ravyn waves his tail. "Enough. Ashlyn is tired and she should get some rest before tomorrow. I suspect Averitha will be staying here for awhile if she's desperate to execute her next plan. Bring Ash back to her den and leave. I have matters to deal with alone."

"Wait--" I stop him. "What is going on? Why are you guys so different when the Mistress comes? Who are you really?"

Ravyn doesn't glance at me as he walks out. "I'm afraid that's not a question I can answer, Ashlyn darling. Get some rest; tomorrow won't be any easier."

THREE

The next few days pass without much incident. Ravyn continues to receive visitors and reports in this throne room, and he lets me sit beside him for most of the events to "entertain" him. In reality, he's letting the villagers know that I am his pet and he is careless enough to just be toying with me rather than focus on the important news they are bringing. He is flippantly telling everyone that he is in power.

I let him do what he wants. There's not much I can do anyway. Ravyn takes me out of the dark cell he had first put me in and places me in a nice compartment I can call my own den. It's in his massive expanse of a "den", and I'm grateful I get my own private space.

Ravyn doesn't do much outside of stroking me with his tail and smiling at me. He acts cold and dismissive when there are visitors, and when there aren't, he is calm and relaxed. He keeps away from me when nobody is around, and I'm glad he isn't shoving himself upon me when he certainly has the power to do so.

"Up," Ravyn snaps one day, pushing into my den. I sit up in an instant.

"What's going on?"

"Let's go," he snarls, nosing me up. "We don't have much time. You have to get up and just follow me. Don't say a word, Ashlyn. Keep your mouth shut this entire time. I can't afford to lose you."

I'm sincerely confused, but I keep my mouth shut as we make our way to the front of his house. The Mistress is waiting for us there, along with Jas and Everett. They look wary, but I notice they keep a cold, distant look on their faces, a matching expression to Ravyn's cruel smile.

"My Lady," he bows, "you summoned me?"

Averitha nods once, short and quick. "I didn't ask for you to bring your pet along, Ravyn. I made it clear we are doing something important today."

"Apologies, Mistress." Ravyn gives another bow. "But Ashlyn doesn't leave my side. She can be helpful when she needs to be and she won't be a bother." A tap with his paw against my flank. I don't react to his touch, but I know nobody else saw the exchange. It's a warning for me.

The Mistress eyes me with obvious distaste. I can see the way she looks at Ravyn when he's not groveling at her paws. There is hunger in her eyes and she often gazes at the beauty that reflects off Ravyn's face when he keeps a calm look over his face.

Ravyn remains ignorant to all this, although I know he's observant. Jas falls in step beside me and Everett flanks Ravyn's other side. Averitha leads the way, turning away from me in quick dismissal. I loosen my shoulders. I've been approved of then, if we are on our way.

I'm burning with curiosity but Ravyn hasn't given any indication that I am allowed to speak. At least I'm not wrapped in brambles and pulled along. Perhaps this is why Ravyn acts as if I am his toy, rather than his prisoner. I wonder why Ravyn felt as if he had to take me along. Did he think I could really be useful in whatever mission they are embarking on? I am just a mere huntress for the Colony, nothing more.

"Observe," Jas murmurs to me, "Ray wants you to watch and learn today. Stay out of the way but keep your eyes open. Watch every single move made."

I walk quietly alongside them as Ravyn and Averitha exchange plans and words that fly right over my head. I don't understand what is going on but I let Jas guide me along. She is watching Ray and Averitha closely, as is Everett. In fact, they looked as if they were examining every move Averitha made towards Ravyn.

We walk for a long time before we reach a hidden grove. Ravyn examines the area and he stiffens ever so slightly. It's enough to make Jas and Everett shift to a fighting position as Ray casually turns to face Averitha. "Why are we here?"

"Oh, don't give me that innocent face, Ravyn. You know perfectly why we are here." Her eyes dart to me. "Are you pretending to be stupid for your little pet? Get rid of that pretense, Ravyn, I didn't keep you around as my Beast because you were softhearted."

Ravyn schools his face into a cruel neutrality. "We discussed this attack several days ago, Mistress. I have forces ready to march on the camp any time you want them to, but I don't need your help in this." He gestures to the cats Averitha had brought with her.

"I know you don't need my help, but I thought it would give a stronger message if I were to march in alongside you. After all, who really owns this forest?" Averitha's words hold some sort of a challenge. I don't miss the way Everett steps closer to Ravyn.

"You of course," Ravyn bows his head, as does Jas and Everett. I don't follow suit, and Ravyn glances behind at me. I almost miss the look of warning in his eyes that causes me to cast my eyes downward. Just in time, too, as I sense Averitha's scathing glare.

"You should leave your pet here," she sniffs in distaste, "she won't have the stomach for the bloodbath we're about to have."

Ravyn ignores her. "You should have alerted me of today's attack. I could have brought my own forces along."

"You have your personal bodyguards," Averitha dismisses, "They will be enough. Do you doubt the ability of my soldiers?"

"No, Mistress, of course not."

"Then let's begin. You will send in your forces after I attack, Ravyn. You will come in with me, but your bodyguards will remain here with your she-cat until they are needed. I want my forces to be the one tearing down this miserable rebel camp that you discovered." Averitha turns and swiftly stalks away, her forces following her.

Ravyn lingers and Jas hisses. "I told you we should have evacuated the camp earlier! Now Averitha is going to tear down the walls and murder every single rebel in there. We've just lost our chance!"

Everett hushes her but Ravyn just shakes his head. "Go around the back and take as many as you can out. Rescue the she-cats and the kits first. Hopefully the warriors will be able to hold Averitha's forces off. Take Ashlyn with you."

"What--?" I begin, but Ravyn disappears after Averitha, leaving the three of us alone. Jas curses, but Everett pushes into the undergrowth, going the opposite way as Ravyn.

"Hurry," he urges, "we don't have much time before the attack starts."

As if on cue, a shriek of pain fills the forest air. I flinch, but I scramble after Jas and Everett as they race through the forest, making their way to a sheet of ivy. Everett doesn't hesitate to push it aside, causing some of the cowering she-cats inside to scream. "Come on out," Everett says roughly, "we need to get you guys out of here and fast. Take all the kits and the young cats and let's go."

"What's going on?" One of the queens drag out her kits, "Who are you?"

"We're here to help," Jas says firmly. "Ash, take them and guide them out. If you keep going, you'll see a stream. Get them there and tell them to head south. They'll reach a hidden camp there and tell them to camp out there. They will be safe if they stay there."

I have no choice but to follow their orders. I urge the she-cats and the kits to follow me and sure enough, I reach a stream. "Head south," I repeat Jas's orders. "There will be a hidden camp that you guys can stay in. You'll be safe there."

They hurry along the stream and I quickly make my way back in time for Everett to drag me back to the hidden grove. A few moments later, Ravyn and Averitha come back in, covered in blood and filth. Everett and Jas have already nonchalantly began to groom their fur and they look up as the rest of Averitha's soldiers file in. "Is it done then?" Jas asks innocently. "We didn't think you needed any help, so we stayed here."

I quickly look down at myself and thank the stars that I'm not dirty in any way. I look as if I really had just stayed here the entire time, as does Everett and Jas.

Ravyn looks us over once but Averitha ignores us entirely. "Head back to your city, Ravyn. I will check in on your progress in a week. Make sure you have information this time; I will not tolerate you coming up short again."

"As you wish," he murmurs and Averitha leaves with her soldiers. Ray cocks his head and listens. After a short while, he lets loose a sigh. "Did you get it done?" He catches Everett and Jas's attention. "I didn't see any of the younger rebels when we were attacking the camp. You got them all out, right?"

"Yeah," Everett nods once. "What happened on your end?"

Ray just shakes his head. "With so many of her soldiers watching me, I couldn't do anything but play along. The rebels won't forgive me for awhile, although they never would have put their trust in me in the first place. Next moment you get, you and Jas will check on them and see if there are other rebel camps gathering."

"You shouldn't have told Averitha," Jas accuses, her blue eyes flashing angrily. Her dark gray fur is bushed up, and she looks distraught over the loss of the rebels. It makes no sense to me; aren't they supporters of the Mistress? Why were they always doing their best to cross paths with her then?

"I have nothing else to give her!" Ray snaps.

"What was the price?" Everett asks softly. Ray half-turns towards the golden tom. "Why did you tell her of this place and refuse to rescue them before today? You knew she was going to attack soon yet you told us to wait and wait. Why, Ravyn?"

The power of Ray's full name hits me. Everett and Jas have never outright called Ray by his full name. Ravyn stares at the golden tom for a long moment before dropping his gaze. "The cost for not telling her anything would have been your lives," he admits quietly. "You know I didn't get any information out of the prisoners so I told her about this camp."

There is tears in Jas's eyes as she turns away. "Even so, we should have rescued them."

Ravyn just shakes out his fur. "Enough of this. We need to head back. Ashlyn must be tired."

"Don't use her as an excuse," Everett growls, "We need to talk, Ravyn, and we're going to do so the moment we get back to the city. This has to stop; you promised to trust us."

I have absolutely no idea what the three of them are talking about, but it's evident that Ray doesn't want me to know. I obediently follow them back and let them lead me to my den. I sleep fitfully, unable to shake the questions off my mind.

Why is Ravyn walking the thin line of loyalty and betrayal with the Mistress he serves? Why did he tell Everett and Jas to try to evacuate the camp before they could all be slaughtered?

As I fall asleep, I can't help but realize that there is more to Ravyn, Everett, and Jasmine that I know of.

FOUR

Someone shakes me awake. "Ashlyn," I hear Jas whisper, "I need you to come with me right now." I sit up in an instant, alert. "Come on," she urges me outside, "we don't have much time."

"What's going on?" I murmur to her as she slips us out of Ray's den.

"Ray wants me to get you out of her before the Mistress comes over today." It's been a week already since we raided that rebel camp? I hadn't realized how much time had passed since Jas and Everett had first brought me to Ray. The three of them had seem more like my friends now that they were apart of my constant, every day life.

They are never cruel with me and I begin to enjoy their company, even though I long to return to the Colony. Jade must be worried sick about me.

"If Ravyn doesn't ever want me to cross with the Mistress, why don't you guys send me home?" I ask as we emerge from Ray's den and into the den next to his. It smells faintly of both Jas and Everett, and I realize this must be where they sleep.

"Ray can't do that," Jas shakes her head. "Trust me, Everett and I longed to let you go that day but we needed you to be here."

"Why?" I press.

"Ray's in big trouble," Everett's deep voice rumbles. "If he didn't keep you for himself, the Mistress might have flayed him already. With you at his side lately, she's backed off, thinking he's been busy with capturing poor Colony she-cats in his spare time instead of releasing rebel prisoners."

Jas casts him a warning look, but I'm tired of being treated like a fragile creature. "You can tell me," I insist, "I'm not going to turn any of you in. I just want to go home."

"Now's not the time," Everett sighs. "You need to stay here, Ash. Jas and I need to head back in because Ray will need us there. Don't leave this den. Promise you'll stay here." His eyes are piercing. Why hadn't they kept me in my own den? "It'll be...muffled here. Whatever you hear, do not leave this den until we come back to get you."

Muffled? I feel a shiver of fear at his words. Whatever is going to happen in Ray's den isn't going to pleasant then. Jas and Everett disappear into a tunnel that connects the two dens. I wait for a moment before going against their words and slipping in after them. I wait in the shadows of the tunnel, crouching low so that they won't see me.

Ray is sitting stiffly where he always is, the cruel beauty of his face a reminder that he is Averitha's supporter and Beast. The golden she-cat is sitting with her tail curled as she smirks faintly at Ray, then at Jas and Everett at his side.

On the floor, there is a long, bramble whip. "Turn him around." Averitha snaps and two of her soldiers move forward and to my shock, Ray lets them spin him around so that he is facing the wall. Averitha studies his pelt with a lover's look. "I do love the condition you keep your pelt in, Ravyn, but you have been crossing too many lines. Let this be a reminder of what happens to traitors."

One of the soldiers pick up the whip. Jas and Everett remain motionless beside him, even though I can see that Everett strains to defend Ray.

The soldier lifts the whip but Averitha stops him. "Actually, your foot soldier should take it for you. How about that ginger tom right there?"

"No!" Ravyn spins around, his eyes wide with horror. Everett stiffens ever so slightly but he doesn't let Averitha see his reaction. "No," Ray says again. To my surprise, he drops down in front of her, crouching in pleading respect. "You're right; I've been slacking on my duties. Everett has just been following orders. Give me the punishment. I promise you'll get your reports on time next time and I won't cross any lines with you."

"Liar," Averitha purrs, "you've been a hard Beast to tame for moons now, Ravyn. If I whip you, you'll just accept it and move on. Don't think I don't know you're hiding something, Ravyn. Shall I carve it out of the pretty she-cat standing next to you? Or perhaps your pet who has been listening in on us this entire time?" Her eyes are dark as she glares right at me.

I stifle my yelp but it's too late. Ravyn's golden eyes flit to me. "Leave her out of this," Ravyn says calmly. "I'll take your punishment. I've given you proof of my loyalty before."

"No." Averitha motions for her guards to take him aside. They keep Ray down as he struggles. "I want your golden tom to take the lashes. Just twenty. If you don't let him take it, then your little pet will. She won't be so fun to play with when she's all scarred now, will she?"

Ravyn is pale. "Please, Mistress."

"You're so pathetic when you beg, Ravyn. You should be thankful I am only doling out lashes here. I could be forcing you to tell me whatever you're so desperate to hide from me. Are you a rebel sympathizer, Ravyn? Is that it? Or are you secretely plotting to overthrow me? You say you've been completely loyal to me. Prove it, Ravyn. I'm letting you off today because you gave me the rebel camp location and helped with the slaughter of them. But where were all the she-cats and kits? Don't you delight in taking their lives too?"

Ravyn's face has turned cold. "Guess there just weren't any. It's a shame too."

Averitha barks out a laugh. "Let's get this over with then. Twenty lashes, guards, make it as slow as you want."

Everett doesn't struggle as they hold him down. I'm shaking from where I am, but my paws are glued to the dirt. I watch as they yank the bramble vine across Everett's back twenty times. Each hit is sickening, and my stomach lurches.

Blood pools underneath Everett but he just grits his teeth and takes the blows. Ravyn is pleading the entire time, fighting against Averitha's guards as he tries to get to his friend. "Mistress!"

"Shut up!" Averitha lashes out at Ravyn, missing him by a hair. "Do that again, Ravyn, and I'll kill him instead."

When the lashing is done, Averitha leaves Everett slumped on the floor. The soldiers release Ray and he flies for his friend. "This is a warning, Beast. Disobey me again and your two bodyguards die. Do it again after that and your pet becomes mine. After that...I will personally find out your darkest secrets and kill everyone you love." She turns and stalks out of the den. "I expect you to find more information on the rebels for me by next week, Ravyn."

When she's gone, I creep out of the tunnel. Jas is already pulling out herbs and cleaning Everett's wounds. Ray just stands there, paws in Everett's blood, staring at the golden tom kneeling on the floor.

"Ray," I say softly.

"Take him to the back," Jas advises, "his den is the one on the right."

I do as she says and lead the black tom to his den. He sits down, still stunned. "She should have done that to me," Ravyn whispers, "I deserved it. Jas and Everett are only trying to protect me. They've always just done what I order them to do."

"What game are you playing?" I stare into his devastated golden eyes. "Why are you even here in the first place? Why did you support Averitha?"

"I..." Ravyn shakes his head. "That's a story for another time."

I can feel myself reaching out for him. He's a villain. I remind myself, but I know it's not true. Whatever reason Ravyn has for being here, he's doing so for something. It's just like Averitha said; Ravyn is protecting something important to him.

"I'm doing this for Jas and Everett's sake." Ravyn says. I know there's more that he's not telling me but I nod along anyway. "They need this home. They have nowhere else to go unless Averitha is gone. She took over the Dark Woods as soon as she got here and my only choice to protect my friends was to support her."

He raises his eyes to meet mine. "You probably think I'm a horrible cat, siding with her, killing for her. I've taken countless lives for her cause, Ash, and deep inside, I almost don't regret it. I would do anything for my friends, even if it means making a monster out of myself."

A Beast, that's what Ravyn had become.

"You have a heart though," I murmur, pressing a paw against his chest. Ray stares down at where my paw is. "You have a soul."

I can feel the beat of his heart underneath my paw. "A heart can be black as night. It can be corrupt," he whispers back. "There is no hope for me, Ash. I don't expect a starry heaven when I die because all I've done in this lifetime is destroy the lives of others."

When I don't reply, he continues. "I shouldn't even be keeping you here. Averitha isn't fooled."

"Why am I here then?" I stare him down. "What purpose do I serve?"

Ravyn takes my paw and lowers it to the ground. He lets his paw stay on mine, gently. His golden eyes are a ruin of devastation and I stare into them, admiring the silver flecks that shine in his eyes. "You are the savior of my soul, Ash," he ducks his head. "But I should be sending you home."

"What can I do to help?" I blurt out.

"Help?" Ravyn looks startled.

"Help." I repeat. "Your situation with Averitha. How can I help you? Jas and Everett are dear to you. It pains me to see you fighting to deal with that loss. I want to know how I can be of service while I am here."

"You don't have to stay," Ray shakes his head. "I want you to go home tomorrow."

"No." I find myself saying firmly. No? Don't I want to go home? "I want to stay here."

Ravyn stares at me as if I have grown a second head. "Ashlyn, I am the villain. I am a demon and I have been the Colony's worst nightmare. You cannot expect me to have a heart, to have a soul. You shouldn't want to stay here. Go home, Ashlyn, before I end up having to reveal to you the true Beast I am."

"You aren't a demon," I place a second paw on top of his, stacking it. Ravyn stares at our paws as if they are on fire. "And you aren't a nightmare. You have a real heart. A real soul. I know there is good in you, Ravyn, your desperation to help your friends, to help the rebels proves it."

His face closes off. "I do not wish to help the rebels," he says coldly, "I am only giving in to Jas's wishes to save the she-cats and kits."

But that isn't true. Ravyn has always been trying to help the rebels. "You may be the villain," I tell him, "but you can also be the hero."

Ravyn just shakes his head. "I have to go check on Everett. Go back to your den and rest. Tomorrow, if you want to stay, you can, but I advise that you leave. I'll make Averitha turn her gaze away from the Colony but you must never enter the Dark Woods again."

His eyes soften as I take a step back from him. "This should be goodbye, Ashlyn."

I don't want this to be goodbye. "I'm not leaving." I tell him. "That's a promise."

I turn and walk out before he can protest. I don't know why I'm so certain of my decision, but I realize that I want to figure out who Ravyn really is. Who is this mysterious black tom who calls himself the Beast? Is he really the villain I think he is, or is there another cat hiding underneath this mask?

FIVE

True to my word, I stay in Ray's den when morning comes around. Jas had come to pick me up and she asked me if she should escort me back to the Colony border but I refused her offer. I shouldn't leave, not until Averitha is gone from the Dark Woods.

I don't know when I thought about that. I know deep in my heart that I have to help Ray and the others get rid of Averitha.

That is, of course, assuming they are against her.

The next few days go on without much trouble and I fall easily into the routine that Jas assigns me.

Everett is recovering well enough, though his pelt is lined with more scars from the whipping he had taken from Averitha. I haven't seen Ravyn since that day of the whipping and Jas tells me that he's out campaigning and fulfilling Averitha's wishes.

You are the savior of my soul.

The words haunt me and follow me as I make myself comfortable with the schedule in Ray's den. Jas and I go hunting to take our minds off Everett's wounds and Ray's continuous absense. By the time two weeks roll around, even Jas starts to worry about Ray a little bit although she refuses to acknowledge it. "He's fine," she reassures me when I ask if we should find a way to check on him. "Plus he's impossible to track. Ray will want us to stay here."

"And do what?" I ask, exasperated.

"Recover." Jas glances at Everett, who is sleeping fitfully. The wounds on his back are just angry red scares now but they still bother him sometimes. He's been pacing lately in the den but Jas hasn't allowed him out yet. "Ray knows what he's doing. We have to trust him."

I barely know him. I want to tell her. But I stay quiet and follow along, hoping that the jet black tom would really return soon with new ideas and plans for us.

I let myself into the numbness that has been my constant companion as Jas and I go on yet another hunt. When we come back, Jas treats Everett with the herbs she bought in the village. After we have our meal and Jas walks me through a training lesson, we retire for the night.

I lay awake in my nest, wishing that there was something I could do other than just be here. Did Ray expect me to be gone by the time he returned? I hadn't seen him since he told me that he was going to send me home. Jas has long stopped pressing me about whether or not I wanted to return to the Colony.

It is two more weeks before something finally happens. By this time, Everett can walk again and his wounds had faded into just scars that line his back. It's an ugly sight at first, but we all learn to look past them and remember that at least he is alive.

When I walk into the throne room, I'm surprised to find Ravyn sitting alone at the slab of stone that serves as his throne, staring idly at a speck of blood on the floor. He looks up when I enter and I register the shock on his face before it fades. Cool relief reflects on his face and he stands but I go over to where he is. I stare down at the speck with him for a long moment, refusing to speak first. I don't know what I want to say to him.

Finally, the silence is unbearable. "What have you been doing for the past moon?"

Ravyn swallows. "Many things."

"That's not an answer."

"Isn't it?" He peers at me with those golden eyes that wash away all my doubts. "I gave you a response to your answer."

"Don't give me smart remarks," I snap, "we've been going mad here and you've been off galavanting about while Everett has been bleeding out on the floor."

Ravyn's face is a mask of cold. I don't know where the words came from but I realize that I'm annoyed that Ray had ignored us for long, regardless of what he had been doing. "I know what Everett is going through," Ray snarls softly. "Don't think that I do not know what pain is. I've been out trying to make Averitha back off so that I can see if Jas and Everett are willing to follow through with the next step of my plan."

"And what is that?" I challenge.

"Not something you need to know of." Ray's eyes harden.

"I told you I wanted to help," I straighten but he still towers over me. "I stayed because I want to help you guys, Ravyn. What are you guys planning? Why do you go through so much trouble to pretend to be Averitha's pet--"

"I am no one's pet." Ray's eyes flash. "I wish I could say the same about you."

"And who made me a pet?" I flatten my ears, surprised by the flash of hurt I feel at his words. Ray has never been bitter to me before but I have also never accused him of turning his back on his friends. "I'm staying, Ray, no matter how much you protest. I'm going to help you bring down Averitha."

Ravyn laughs, taking me off guard. "You think I want to overthrow her?" He laughs again, bitterly yet without restraint. "What a fool's joke. Where did you get such a silly idea, Ashlyn? Do you really think I would be disloyal enough to try to kill her?"

I blink. I must have stared at him for a long time because Ravyn's golden eyes glitter with sudden malice. "I'm giving you one last warning, Ash. Leave tonight or else I will have no choice but to let you see the true workings of this court."

A challenge then, to see if I will stay behind. I lift my chin. "I'm not leaving." I say stubbornly. "You will have to drag me kicking and screaming to get me out of here. And even then I'll just come back. You'll have to kill me to stop me from staying."

I could have sworn that a flash of panic flits across Ravyn's eyes but it's gone before I can confirm it. He opens his mouth to say something but Jas and Everett enter. Hearing their arrival, Ravyn turns away from me. "Go to your den, Ash. Take the day off to think over my offer."

"No."

He sets his jaw but I don't move an inch. Jas glances between us worriedly, but Everett just ignores us. "Ray, we need our next orders. You've delayed everything a moon now. We don't have much time."

"We have plenty of time," Ray says smoothly. "Averitha has offered us all the time in the world."

Confusion is plain on the ginger tom's face but Jas nudges him. He glances down at her and sudden understandment floods over his eyes. "Of course," he mumbles, "I should have known that you would be able to persuade her. She has to listen to her Beast from time to time."

I snort in disgust. I turn away. "Forget it, I'm leaving. You can speak in private as you wish."

I can feel Jas's eyes on me but I just stalk away to my room and bury my head in my paws. A moon before, I had thought that Ray was a compassionate young tom who had sacrificed his soul for his best friends. Now, he had turned into the soulless monster that I had feared for most of my life.

A part of me pleads that this new side of Ray is a mask and that he is just pretending for the sake of his friends but I can't be sure. I had barely known him for a few weeks before that day that had snapped the tender sort of the connection I had began to feel around the Beast.

I find myself suddenly exhausted and I let myself go to sleep, drifting in an endless sea of doubt.

~

Ravyn wasn't lying when he told me that he would reveal the true inner workings of this court. When I arrive at the throne room, Ravyn forces me to stay with Jas on the side rather than sit with him on his slab of stone. He gazes out with emotionless eyes and surveys as the Mistress enters with her soldiers, dragging along several soldiers.

Averitha is seething. Her violet eyes are pinned on Ray and when I glance at the jet black tom, I can see a glimmer of barely concealed fear in his eyes. Then with a blink, it's gone and Ray smiles courteously at the Mistress. Her eyes run over him once, and I see Ravyn stiffen ever so slightly.

The prisoners are dragged in front of Ray. I study them and with a jolt, I realize that they are the same cats I had seen when I had first been kept here. Ray's eyes are impassive as he gazes at them, though the she-cat who had spat at him stares at him with wide eyes.

We all wait for Averitha to speak. The golden she-cat takes her time, watching Ravyn closely before finally speaking her thoughts. "My guards found these three snooping around again. Do I need to ask for your explanation for why they aren't dead already?"

Ray studies them nonchalantly. "They must have escaped. What a bother."

"You told me they were killed." Averitha snarls.

Ray flicks his tail. "I thought the deed had been done. I'll have to hunt down the guards who made a mess of this situation." His golden eyes narrow ever so slightly at the prisoners, who look slightly guilty for having to be captured again. Had Ravyn really released these prisoners? I recall his words to Everett and Jas a moon ago. You know what to do.

Everett had suggested taking me too that day. I watch as Everett's expression tightens ever so slightly as he watches the Mistress for a response. The scars on his back seem to be ten times as visible today. Averitha glanecs at them with enough pleasure that makes Jas bristle next to me.

"Deal with them," Averitha flicks her tail at the prisoners. "And don't just send them to the prisons."

Ravyn steps off his throne with lethal grace. His footsteps are near silent as he stops in front of the defiant she-cat. He tips his head ever so slightly, scanning her enough that makes her snarl before his claws slices through her pelt. She shrieks in surprise and pain but no regret flashes across Ravyn's face. He just smiles cruelly down at her as he pins her down without the guard's help.

"You've been a lot of trouble to me," he purrs to her, "are you still sure that that I will have a revolution here that I cannot stop? I am more powerful than you think."

"No," the she-cat says softly, "she is more powerful than you think. She holds your leash."

Ravyn lets amusement dance across his face. "Nobody holds my leash," the coldness on his face makes me glad that I am not beside him at this moment. "And I think you'll see that when I carve out your heart and watch the light fade from your eyes."

Fear flashes in the she-cat's gaze but Ravyn traces his claws over her heart, playing with her. The tom next to her strains against his guards, trying to get to the she-cat on the floor. "Should I tear out your tom's heart first?" Ray coos. "I always enjoy watching my prisoners squirm as I tear away everything they love."

"You're a monster," the she-cat whispers, her tears falling down her face. "I thought you were better than this."

There is a heavy silence before Ravyn's claws shoot out into her heart. He leans down to murmur something into her ear and I barely catch it. "You will find that everyone has two sides to their story and that not everyone is who they seem to be."

He yanks his claws back out, red with her blood. He takes a casual step back, his smirk still plastered over his face. Averitha watches as the she-cat feebly tries to move. Blood bubbles from her mouth and she slumps over, dead. Ravyn turns away from her without sparing her any remorse. I feel disgust stir in my stomach, along with revulsion at what Ravyn was doing.

He approaches the tom but this time he doesn't go through anything. He merely traces his claws near the tom's throat before slicing through that too.

When all the prisoners are dead, Averitha's guards clear out the bodies and Ravyn licks the blood off his paws. The Mistress eyes the blood on the floor disdainfully. "I can see why you like to torture your prisoners in your prison. But I expected to see more bloodshed today, Beast."

"Too much to clean up," Ravyn waves his elegant tail. "I am not in the mood to scrub blood off my floor."

"Have your pet do it."

"She is mine to play with," Ravyn casts me a sly glance, giving me a full view of his sensous smile. "I will not have her doing my dirty work."

Averitha just eyes me coolly and I can see her jealousy plain as day. It hits me like a stone. Averitha is jealous that I have Ray's attention when she is merely his master that he chooses to disobey as much as he can. Her eyes flit to Everett and the ginger tom tenses.

"Those scars suit your guard," Averitha purrs, an edge in her tone. "It definitely would not have gone well with your body, Ravyn."

She sidles closer to the black tom and to my surprise he lets her. He lets her run her tail over his pelt, lets her lean in close enough to brush her nose along his cheek. Jas hisses slightly in anger but neither she nor Everett make a move to stop Averitha.

The Mistress steps away from Ravyn delicately. "I'll see you in my den later, Ravyn." A look of greed crosses her face and she turns and walks away from Ray's den, disappearing into the village beyond.

As soon as she's gone, all three of them relax and loosen up. Ray turns to Everett. "Tonight, you bring Ash out. You and Jas. Take her to Solieron and keep her there until the coast is clear. Stay there even after she leaves. Don't come back. You know your orders."

Jas starts in surprise. "Ray--"

"Don't question me," Ray says with deadly calm. "Tonight. You're right; I shouldn't have put it off. Promise me you'll stay at Solieron until I call for you."

"You're not ever going to call for us," Everett says quietly. "You can't ask this of us."

"I can and I will." Ray's golden eyes are fierce with passion and love for his friends. "Please."

Everett looks as if he wants to protest but Jas puts her paw on his larger one. He looks at the gray she-cat with pain in his eyes. "We'll do it, Ray, but promise you won't be reckless without us here watching your back. Don't make the same mistake you made before."

Ray's eyes are unreadable. "I won't."

"Wait," I stop them, "what is going on?"

Ravyn walks closer to me and Jas and Everett fall back. I stare into his golden eyes, my heart tugging towards his handsome face. I haven't realized how much I crave being his presence and how much I wish I could understand him. "I wish I had more time to explain, Ashlyn, but you must go tonight. There is no time. Follow Everett and Jas and they'll tell you what to do."

My heart beat faster as he leans down ever so slightly, his nose inches away from mine. I can feel his breath on my cheek and I feel myself leaning towards him, wanting to feel the comfort of his strength, of the way his muscles moved under his sleek pelt.

But Ray pulls away, regret lining his eyes. "This is goodbye for real, Ashlyn. I hope that we never have to see each other again."

Hurt flashes in my chest but Ray turns and walks away before I can demand what he means. I stare at his retreating figure, my chest aching with sudden want.

"Come," Jas sighs. "We have to set out now if we are to reach Solieron by night fall."

SIX

Solieron is just on the outskirts of the Dark Woods. The lush plains that surround the stone walls of the camp brings a pang in my chest as it reminds me of the swaying meadows of the Colony. We get there just as night falls and Everett and Jas herd me into the camp. It isn't as large as the village camp that Ray resides in right now, but there are plenty of cats here.

They all greet Jas and Everett warmly, calling out their names. The two of them know them by name as well, and I realize how tight-knit this group of cats are. "What is this place?" I turn to Jas.

"This is our home," there is a serene smile on her face. "Our paradise."

Neither of them offer an explanation as we reach a large den that sits in the middle of the camp. "Ray's den," Jas says proudly, "he shares it with his most trusted friends."

There are two cats waiting for us inside. "Nice of you two to finally come back," one grumbles. Her pelt is silver, similar to Jas's light gray. My fur is a dusty sort of gray compared to their colors. The other tom is a russet brown tom who glances over me critically. 

"Who is this?" He gestures with his tail.

Jas jumps to my rescue. "Ryker, Aurora, meet Ashlyn. Ash, the grumpy tom is Ryker and the silver she-cat is Aurora."

"I am not being grumpy!" Ryker huffs. "Where's Ray?"

Everett just shakes his head. "You know it's not over yet."

Aurora lashes her tail. "He should have let all four of us come with him that day. He's a fool to think he can defeat her all by herself."

My confusion must be plain on my face because Everett turns to me slightly. "He does plan on overthrowing Averitha," he says, "just not in the way you think."

"When it's safe," Jas continues, "you need to go back to the Colony and tell them all you know about the village we first brought you to. Rally an army to storm that camp and to defeat the Mistress and her supporters. You can't spare any lives, Ash."

"Spare any lives?" I echo. "Who--?"

Aurora whirls on the light gray she-cat. "You can't be serious. He's not that crazy is he? We need him here! He has to find some way to fight it."

Jas ignores her. "We're going to stay here so don't worry about us. You can't ever tell the Colony about Solieron, you hear? I mean, if you find that you don't want to stay in the Colony anymore, you're welcome to come back, but you must never tell anyone about this camp. It's been shielded for a very long time."

"But Ray--" Sudden realization flows through me. "Ray wants me to storm his camp and kill him along with Averitha."

Everett jerks his head in a nod. "I can't." I shake my head. "Ray's done so much for all of you guys. How can you just stand here knowing he'll die over there while the four of you lounge here? How can you accept his death with such calmness?"

"We all care about him," Ryker says quietly. "But if Ray gives us orders to stay put, we listen. He's our leader and we respect and care about him with all our hearts. Ray's making his final stand."

"No, he's giving up."

Jas looks torn. "You saw what he's done over the moons, Ash. He's been forced to be a villain, to be a monster for the moons Averitha has kept him there. Ray doesn't want to come home, not anymore. He wants give back for the lives he took. For the lives he ruined."

"He's not a villain though," I sit down, trying to calm my beating heart. "Solieron proves that he's not a soulless monster."

"No," Aurora shakes her head. "Ray is something else entirely. He gives and gives and gives, but he'll never take anything for himself. Even now, he doesn't expect us to save him." She glances at the others. "This she-cat is right. We can't let Ray just die like this."

Everett's chest heaves as he struggles to come up with a proper response. "Ash, when you go back," he stares at me with those piercing green eyes. "When you go back, please save him."

I nod once. "What is his story? What are all your stories?"

"He rescued us," Aurora says simply. "He saved all of us from a bad fate and brought us to Solieron. This is his kingdom of peace for refugees and rogues. Ray is compassionate and caring for us and he is so selfless that he will give up his soul to keep us all safe." Her eyes land on Everett's new scars, a reminder of Ray's inability to save Everett that day. "He's not a villain or a monster. He is a hero wearing the skin of demon."

"His story is not ours to tell," Jas says. "When you bring him back here, ask him yourself."

Everett rises. "It's time. Jas, are you coming?" The light gray she-cat shakes her head. The golden tom leads me out and I murmur a quiet farewell to the others. We head out into the night again.

I turn to Everett to ask the question that has been burning in my mind since we arrived at Solieron. "Why did Ray ask you to bring me here? It isn't because the forest is unsafe. He wanted to show me his home, didn't he?"

Everett smiles sadly. "He wants to show you the goodness of his heart before he died, Ash."

My heart flutters at the thought of this kind tom who had showed the four of them such sympathy. When I had been in Averitha's grasps, Ray had extended that kindness to me, to protect me. And I realize as we walk silently towards the Colony that I would not allow Ray to die when I stormed the camp to kill Averitha. No, I would find a way to protect this tom that I had come to care about.

"He cares a lot about you as well," Everett reads my expression. "Bring him home."

"I will." I whisper.

We part ways when we reach the Colony border and I hurry back to the camp I had once called home. I realize that when this battle is over, when Averitha is dead, I will not return to the Colony, to my old life. No, I wanted to be where Ray was, to be with Jas and Everett at Solieron.

The camp is still awake when I step inside. At first, nobody notices me. Then a light brown she-cat rockets through the camp, barrelling into me. "Ash!" She shouts, "Where have you been?"

"Jade," I smile slightly. "I've been..." I don't know how to finish that sentence. I've been captured by Averitha's forces. I've been with two cats who I could call my best friends. I've been with a tom that I've slowly been falling for.

"I need to talk with the Leader." I give up trying to explain what had happened to me in the past moon or so.

"He's over there." Jade points out the black and white tom.

I stride over to the Leader and bow my head. The others around him hush up and stare at me blatantly. "Ashlyn," the Leader greets me, "it's been a long while since you've come home."

It's not my home. The words stick to my throat. "I've been in the lair of our enemy." I explain. I talk about the village and the camp beyond that holds Averitha and her supporters. When I'm done, I say firmly. "We need to rally our forces and bring an army upon them. We need to defeat them before they can expand the Dark Woods."

Before they can discover Solieron, the place Ray has spent moons protecting.

"If this threat is true, then we must prepare for war." The Leader acknowledges. "How soon are we to strike this camp?" He doesn't ask who had helped me out, who had told me to attack. My throat closes at the thought of revealing Ray, a tom too special for them to tear apart.

"As soon as we can. Tomorrow."

Some of the cats around us begin to protest, but the Leader nods once. "It can be done. Thank you, Ash, for telling us this. Tomorrow, we will march upon this camp and wipe out the demons who had taken StormClan's title a long time ago."

Jade bombards me with questions, but I'm unable to answer them properly. I find that this camp seems so small, so insignificant when compared to the close-bonded group I had witnessed at Solieron. I long for that camp, for the four friends that Ray treasures. I long for the jet black tom whose golden eyes had lured me in from the moment I had met him.

I barely sleep that night, tossing in turning in my nest, reaching for the comfort of friends that are no longer there.

~

The next morning, all the cats in the Colony capable of fighting gather at the border of the Dark Woods. The darkness that presses down on the forest still unnerves me, but as we move in, the darkness bends around us instead of blinds us.

I lead them straight to the camp. I hesitate when we draw near, but the Leader has already seen it. He barks out orders for our forces and I slip towards the back. I'm not actually going to fight in this battle unless it includes Averitha. No, I had to find Ray.

The battle starts before I'm ready and shrieks fill the air, piercing through the silence that had blanketed us along with the darkness. I lunge into the camp, darting past fighting cats, trying to make my way to where I knew Ray would be.

Thank the stars Jas and I had spent so much time hunting so that I knew the path to Ray's den. I sprint for his den just as he walks out. We crash into each other, our legs tangling with one another. He curses and pushes me off him, his claws out, his golden eyes wide.

"Ash?"

"Ray," I pant, trying to pick myself off the ground, "we have to leave--"

"No," Ray says flatly. "I need to find Averitha."

"Are you going to fight here?" I nearly sag to the ground in relief. Maybe I didn't need to whisk us away to prevent Ray's death.

"Perhaps," Ray says casually. "But you should be my enemy, Ashlyn. The two of us are on different sides of the battlefield."

"Never," I whisper, pulling myself up so I am staring right into his golden eyes. I'm close enough to spot the silver specks within them. "You are my friend, Ray, whether you like it or not. And our other friends are waiting at Solieron. You can't let them down."

Ray is painstakingly close. His eyes are pinned to mine and his breath mingles with mine. I breathe in his scent. If I just took one more step, our noses would brush. I almost move my paws forward, my eyes drowning in the depths of his golden eyes.

Ray pulls away, his chest heaving slightly. "I'm not letting them down," he rasps.

He turns and he darts away. I cry out in surprise and heave myself fully to my paws, racing after him. "Ray!" I shout. "Wait up!"

He disappears into the throng of fighting cats. I curse and shove my way through, dancing around flying claws, trying to spot the jet black tom. But he's disappeared in the midst of all these cats. I spin around desperately, looking for a golden she-cat with violet eyes instead. If I am going to find Ray, I am going to have to find Averitha.

It takes me awhile, but I spot her. More likely she finds me first. She leers at me, her violet eyes vibrant and glowing with hate. "You little pet," she snarls, "I knew something was amiss when Ravyn told me that he had let you go. You were never his plaything, were you?"

Ray suddenly appears at her side. "I tired of her, Mistress. Plus, I had you, didn't I?"

I start. What? Ray turns his golden eyes to Averitha. The golden she-cat curls her lip, but I see the way her violet eyes pulls towards Ray's handsome features. It's no wonder Averitha fell for him that easily. Did Ray service her to protect his friends as well? I recall the past moon, how absent he had been, how he had left every night to go to Averitha's place.

I feel sick. Ray had given up his soul, his mind, his body for his friends. His eyes slide to me, guilt and regret and something else in his eyes. For me.

The sight of the anguish in his face steals the breath from me. I struggle to stand still, wanting to attack Averitha to protect Ray from her. He deserves a happy ending with his friends, away from the horrors he had gone through here with Averitha.

But Ray turns and a serene smile blooms on his face, though I can tell its fake. "Let her go, Mistress, it's not as if she's going to harm us." His golden eyes run over me once, almost dismissively. But his eyes linger on mine, a plea in his gaze. Go.

My paws won't budge. I refuse to leave this battle without Ray. He shouldn't be here with the Mistress, pretending to be her lover. He doesn't deserve a timely death at the paws of my former friends. I won't let him remain a prisoner any longer.

When I don't move, Averitha curls her lip. "Get rid of her, Ravyn. We have to join the battle against the cats she brought. I'll give her five seconds before I attack." Her violet eyes gleam with the need for violence and I shudder.

"Ashlyn," Ray approaches me slowly. "You have to go." His eyes say differently. Fight them. But don't come near me.

My heart tugs towards him. I let him come closer. Then, in a swift motion that Averitha can't see, I press my nose to Ray's. He freezes, and his scent washes over me. I breathe it in before he stumbles back a step. His golden eyes are filled with such sadness I almost sob at the sight. "Go," he whispers, "please."

"Come with me," I plead.

But Ray turns away, his tail curling around Averitha. "She'll be gone," Ray dismisses. "We don't have to waste time on her."

They both turn away, with Averitha giving me a scoffing glance. I bristle at the sight of her tail linking with Ray's, claiming him as hers. It disgusts me how she is using the black tom when he clearly had no real feelings for her. Rage blinds me and I lunge before I can think over my actions.

I slam into her back, my claws shredding into her pelt. She shrieks in outrage, bucking to throw me off. I fly and crash to the ground, my breath knocking out of me. In an instant, Averitha pounces, her claws digging into me. I scream in pain.

"Ashlyn!" Ravyn shouts, the pain in his voice almost unbearable as I clench my teeth to resist the urge to sob.

"You little piece of filth," she seethes, "I don't care what you meant to my Beast. I will tear out your heart and feed it to the crows."

I struggle to move, to do anything to protect myself as she digs her claws deep. I scream again, pain making my senses hazy. I had never been a good fighter anyway.

Then Ravyn barrels into Averitha, pushing her off me. He hauls me up and shields me, his golden eyes flashing with fury. "Don't touch her," he snarls as Averitha narrows her eyes on me.

"You traitor," Averitha curls her lips. "You cared about this she-cat all along, didn't you? You never loved me like I loved you."

"You don't love me," Ravyn's voice is lethal. "You were just using me to entertain yourself, to make it seem as if you were important. Because who doesn't want a pretty face sitting next to them?"

The bitterness in his voice makes me stir, but my wounds are slowing me down. "Move out of the way, Ravyn, and I'll reconsider your betrayal." Averitha says coldly. "Or even better: if you kill that she-cat right now, I'll consider sparing your guards. I know you're hiding them somewhere; that's why they're not in camp right now. But I'll find them."

Ravyn doesn't budge. He flicks his tail, his eyes trained on the Mistress. "I'm not your servant," he tells her, "I am not your slave. And I am not yours to command."

Someone from the Colony spots Averitha and lunges for her, drawing her attention away from us. Another is streaking for Ravyn, and I let out a sob as Ravyn barely avoids getting skewered. "Stop!" I shout, but no one pays me any heed. If we don't leave soon, Ravyn will be surrounded by Colony cats and killed.

"Ray, we need to go," I tug on him, but he almost doesn't move. Then he takes in my pelt, slashed by Averitha's claws. I'm bleeding out. Ravyn's eyes are wild as he takes me by the scruff and hauls me onto his back, sprinting for the nearest exit. Cats shout around us, seeing it as kidnapping, but I close my eyes and let myself bump along on his pelt as Ray barely escapes the camp, stumbling into the undergrowth of the Dark Woods.

"Can you walk?" Ray sets me down gently once we're a good distance away. He's huffing from the effort, his sides heaving.

I nod weakly. "They're going to hunt you down," I whisper, "they think you kidnapped me."

Ravyn's eyes are grim. "I don't care. I need to get you to Solieron so that Ryker can take a look at your wounds. You're not going to die on me."

I close my eyes and lean on him. "I'm not going to die." I murmur as we walk towards Solieron. But I crumple to the ground, exhaustion and pain over taking me. Ravyn just hauls me back onto his pelt and begins to walk again, despite my protests.

"Rest, Ash," he orders, "I'll can carry you."

I don't have a choice because I can't open my eyes anymore. Just before darkness claims me completely, I think I hear Ravyn whisper something.

"Thank you for coming for me."

Always, I want to reply, Always.

SEVEN

I open my eyes, blinking against the brightness of the den. My sides hurt, but the pain is dulled by the herbs I feel working on closing the wounds faster. I draw a breath and I turn my head to find Ray sleeping next to me. My breath stirs him awake and in a second, Ray jerks into a sitting position, leaning over to check on me.

"Ash," he breathes out, "you're okay."

"I'm okay." I smile slightly.

I sit up slowly, my wounds throbbing. "Ryker put some herbs on your wounds claiming it'll help you. You better be feeling okay or else I'll have to go and throttle him." I laugh at his idle threat, though it made my sides hurt even more.

Ravyn sits close to me and he leans his head on top of mine, breathing in my scent. I rest my head against his chest, realizing how perfectly we fit together. I don't know why we're sitting so close, but I let him stay here. My heart rams against my chest and I realize how much I wanted him to be here.

We sit in silence for a long time, as if Ray needed to reassure himself of my survival. "Stars, you don't know how scared I was for the past day," Ray whispers in my ear. "I thought you were going to bleed out and die by the time I reached Solieron."

"And to think I was scared that you would die before I could get you out of the camp," I murmur into his chest.

Ray laughs, his chest rumbling. I feel every vibration with my cheek pressed against his chest. "You drive me crazy sometimes," Ray presses his nose to the top of my head. "Ever since you came to me with Jas and Everett, I couldn't get you out of my mind. I let you stay for so long because I was falling for you fast and hard, and I didn't want to let you go."

"I'm glad," I look up at him to see his golden eyes lined with silver. "Because if you had let me go, I wouldn't have come back to save you in time."

Ray stares at me. I realize how close we are and I blush. I can't stop my ears from turning red as a beautiful smile blooms on Ray's face. "I received word that Averitha isn't dead," Ray informs me. "The fight isn't over yet."

"That's okay." I breathe out. "We're alive."

The jet black tom curls his tail around me. "That we are."

"Tell me your story," I say suddenly, reminded by the conversation I had with Ray's friends--with my friends--just a few days ago. "Tell me what happened that made you the Beast."

Ravyn pulls back to look at me with those golden orbs. "Why do you want to know that?"

"I want to know you." I confess. I put a paw on his heart, an action I had done a moon ago when Everett had been whipped. "I want to know your heart."

The Heart of the Beast.

Ray stills at the paw I place on his chest. His eyes unfocus, drifting back in time to recall whatever had happened that led to today. For a long moment, he doesn't speak.

"Seven moons ago, I was a young and ambitious leader of Solieron, with my best friends helping me rule. We were just and righteous leaders who were adored by all the citizens of Solieron. When I found out there was an uprising in the group of cats that lived within the Dark Woods, I got suspicious and decided I needed to check it out before they came for Solieron. I only took Everett and Jas with me, ordering Ryker and Aurora to stay behind, regardless of what happened to us.

"We trekked far into the Dark Woods before I made a mistake. I was supposed to be watching for myself, but I had been so caught up in trying to figure it all out myself that I hadn't noticed I had walked into a trap until it was too late. Averitha had me surrounded in an instant, and Everett and Jas were too far away to stop it. Averitha saw me and I guess she fell in love with me quickly, so I played along. I pretended to be attracted to her own beauty and was her prisoner for a moon before Everett and Jas finally came running. They tried to infiltrate the camp to no end, so when Averitha finally found them and dragged them in, I sold myself to her to save their lives.

"I told her I would do anything for her, so long as she allowed Everett and Jas to be free. She agreed, if only the two of them stayed with me as my personal guards, never to return home again. I sent a messenger to Solieron anyway, telling Ryker and Aurora what had happened and to tell them to defend Solieron with their lives. For the next five moons, I let myself become the Beast. I gave myself to her, servicing her in her den when she wanted me to, and killing innocents on her orders.

"It didn't matter to me back then. All I cared about was making sure she didn't realize I had other friends out there, waiting for my return. She didn't know what I was hiding, though she knew my heart always lay somewhere else. Sometimes I wonder if my heart lay in the Colony, a place where I had often wondered and dreamt about. Perhaps I was waiting for you, Ashlyn, all this time.

"But I made sure Averitha never questioned my loyalty, even when I aided the rebels constantly and tried to avoid killing all the prisoners she gave me. I let myself drown in my sins, convinced I would one day die trying to kill Averitha and that would be redemption for whatever crimes I was committing."

Ravyn takes a shuddering breath, but I don't release his stare. "And then you came into the picture, Ash, and my heart stopped. Whatever cruelness I had taken from being in Averitha's capture disappeared and I found myself unable to do anything she asked. I made you my pet so that I could avoid being with her, and so she wouldn't take you and do whatever she wanted with you. I wanted to let you go--I certainly could have let you go, but I was too stubbornly in love to watch you walk away."

His golden eyes are distraught and my heart wrenches for him. 

"I was in love with you from the start," Ray whispers, "and I don't think I'll ever stop loving you."

My heart beat faster. I draw closer to him, my breath mingling with his. "I hated you at first," I admit to him, "you took me from my home and held me captive and played with me. Then I started to see your compassion, with the way you treated your friends, with the way you spared the lives of many. Soon, I began to realize that I thought of you, Everett, and Jas as my friends. When you asked me to leave, I couldn't bear the thought of parting from you."

My throat closes up but I force myself to keep going. "I'm in love with you too," I touch my nose to his. "I've been in love with you for quite awhile as well."

The words lift free from my chest and I realize that this is the moment I've been waiting for all my life. In the Colony, I had never taken interest in any of the toms that Jade suggested I look into. I always turned my eyes to the forest and to the land beyond, knowing someone is out there for me.

I have found him.

"You love me?" Ray's golden eyes shine at the words. "Every part of me?"

I press my paw harder into his chest, right above his beating heart. "I love every part of you. I see right into your heart and I am not afraid of who you are."

Ray presses his nose to mine again and then hugs me close to him. "Stars," he murmurs into my skin, "You've driven me crazy from the moment you walked into my life and I didn't realize that the only way to stop myself from falling is to just admit that I love you."

I purr at his words and close my eyes as I lean against him. The battle against Averitha may not be over, but at least the tom I loved would be at my side. I would be there with all my friends, fighting against a cat who had torn our lives apart.

I would not let her do so again.

~

Jas squeals when I tell her of the confession. "I've always suspected that the two of you loved each other," she grins, "the two of you could never look away from each other when you guys were in the same room. I'm surprised it didn't hit you sooner."

I shrug. "I didn't realize it until I tried to die for him when rescuing him. I think that's when it hit me that I loved Ray and I couldn't bear the thought of him dying."

"That's so cute," Jas gushes, "Ray has never been one for romantics, but he does suit you."

I am glad that Jas approves of our relationship. A small part of me had always feared that Jas or Aurora might harbor a secret crush for Ray. But neither of them had objected to me loving Ray. In fact, both of them had been quite happy.

"Speaking of love," I nudge Jas playfully, "what's with it with you and Everett?"

Jas turns scarlet. "You've noticed?" She asks shyly.

"Noticed?" I laugh, "You two are more obvious than Ray and I! You're always watching him to make sure he's okay and I know he cares deeply about you as well. The two of you match well."

Jas is blushing hard. "I don't want to tell him though," she scuffs her paws. "Everett has always been deeply devoted to Ray. I don't want to pull him away from that loyalty that he honors so well. Aurora has been egging me to tell Everett how I really feel, but I'm not sure I'm ready for that sort of a commitment."

"Whenever you're ready, I bet you Everett is just as ready," I reassure her, "you two are perfect for each other!"

"Just like you and Ray," Jas purrs. "Ray's been happier ever since Everett and I found you. He's always been a shadow since Averitha found us snooping around in the Dark Woods and for the first few moons, Ray actually found himself enjoying being the villain. He was truly the Beast until you entered. You are his savior, Ash, whether you think it or not."

EIGHT

The bad news comes a few days after Ray and I confess our love for each other. My wounds are healing pretty well with the aid of Ryker's herbs and constant care. I come to enjoy the russet brown tom's company, when he's not pretending to be grumpy that Ray constantly threatens to kill him if he doesn't heal me fast enough.

Ray enters one morning as Ryker is tending to my wounds. He watches with those golden eyes of his and patiently waits until Ryker is done dabbing the moss onto my wounds. I smile at him as Ryker shuffles back out, muttering about how he didn't want to be in the den when we made out.

"Are you feeling better?" Ray's eyes are gentle as he takes me in.

"Fine." I grin at him. "What brings you here in the early hours of the morning?"

He had just been here last night until Ryker had chased him out, insisting that I needed proper rest in order for my wounds to heal faster. Ray had taken a lot of urging to shoo out of my den because I truly was exhausted. I'm not surprised that Ray would want to come back so fast.

"I have some news," Ray says neutrally.

I study the expression on his face, my smile fading slightly. I sit back cautiously, watching as Ray draws closer until he is close enough for his breath to brush against my cheek. His voice lowers so that only I can hear him. Ryker has already shuffled out of the den.

"It's good and bad so don't give me that look," he curls his tail around me and I rest my head against his chest, right above his beating heart.

"Tell me the good first."

"Not the bad? You like doing things out of the norm."

"Well, you love me so I must be unique."

Ray purrs slightly. "The good news is that the Colony has control over the villages that Averitha and I had once ruled over. They've declared official war against Averitha and her army, claiming the Dark Woods for themselves."

"That's excellent news!" I pull away to smile at him.

"I did say I had good news." Amusement dances in Ray's eyes. "But I have bad news too."

"Hit me."

I almost expect Ray to smack me with his paw to joke around, but the solemn look in his eyes makes me realize that the news may be worse than I had assumed. Ray takes a couple of deep breaths before finally saying. "Averitha has responded to the war declaration, saying that she will back off and give the Dark Woods to the Colony on one condition."

He pauses. I hit him with my paw. "Stop hesitating! I'm going to grow old and die from suspense."

Ray doesn't crack a smile. "What's the condition?" I press.

"Me."

I reel back in shock. "You? Averitha wants the Colony to present you? The Colony isn't exactly in the best terms with you, how does she expect this to happen?"

"She wants me to turn myself in. Everett told me this morning when he made a visit to the Colony to see how the war effort was going. He didn't mention that he is associated with me. He just mentioned he's one of the rebels who helped you. Plus, Averitha knows that the Colony saw me running off with you. As far as the Colony is concerned, I kidnapped you."

"She doesn't even want me?" I stare ay Ray. "Why does she only want you?"

"Because I humiliated her. She knows I'll hunt her down forever until she is dead because I know Averitha will never settle for letting the Colony win. She will hunt me down too until she is dead because she wants her final revenge, even if she really does give up the Dark Woods forever. She'll find Solieron and everyone I love will die. She knows I fear all this so she's asking for my sacrifice."

Stars, Averitha is playing a game of deceit and lies. "She'll hunt Solieron down anyway." I put my paw on Ray's desperate for his touch, for his comfort. "Don't tell me you've considered turning yourself in."

"Averitha's army is huge. The Colony's meager forces won't last once she's gathered everyone. We won this time because we had the upper hand and because we surprised her. Her forces are in the second camp, hidden farther into the Dark Woods. This is the only way I can ensure the Colony's victory." Ray's eyes are desolate.

"You said so yourself that Averitha won't settle for this loss, even with you dead. We can take her on, Ray, I know we can."

"And I know we can't." Ray shakes his head. "Averitha will hold her word. If there's one thing she'll honor, it's her promises. She's promised the Colony peace if I go to her."

"But she never promised Solieron's safety," I say softly. "Averitha knows we're out here."

"I'll make her promise it." Ray's eyes are alight with fierce fire. "I don't want your former friends to die for us, Ash. I'm not a coward; I'll fight my own battles. So many cats died because of me. I'm not going to let any more die."

"No, Ray, please. I love you. What am I going to do without you?" I plead.

Ray's breath is coming in desperate gasps. "I shouldn't have told you," he says bitterly, avoiding my gaze, "I should have known you wouldn't agree."

"Of course not!" I lash my tail, taking a step away from him. Ray's tail reaches for me but I keep pulling away. "You can't tell me you love me and then leave. I'm not going to let you die, Ray. We'll fight her. Promise me you won't go." I need his word before I'll even let him out of his den.

Ray searches my gaze for a very long time. "Okay," he finally relents. "But if it comes down to your life or the others' lives, I'm going. I'm not letting any of you die for me."

I finally step into his embrace. "I love you," I whisper, "I don't want you to ever go, Ray. I know I'm being selfish, but you are my heart. I can't live without that."

His heart is mine.

We had found each other at odds in the middle of a ravaged territory, and he had opened up his heart to me. The Heart of the Beast is more than just something that kept him alive. It makes him whole. It makes him mine.

"Stars, I love you so much, Ash." Ray presses his muzzle to the top of my forehead. "Even if we're a thousand miles apart, I will find a way to get back to you. I will find a way to be yours again."

"You're mine everywhere."

We stay like that for a long while, me pressed up against his chest, him resting his head on top of mine. I don't know how long it is until Aurora barges into the den. "Come on, Ray, we have to go scouting. Everett says that Averitha is probably hiding in her base. You know it best so you'll need to lead the way. Get your lazy--Oh hello, Ash--tail out here and help!"

I stifle a giggle as I step out of Ray's embrace. He lingers, obviously not ready to leave. "Go," I push him towards the impatient Aurora. "We need to start making plans on how we'll be defeating Averitha. There's no reason for us to wait."

My eyes follow him out the den and when he's gone, I push myself out of my nest. I need to see Everett and Jas. I need to make sure I have a part in this battle. I'm not going to let Ray coddle me and keep me in Solieron to protect me. I wanted to be by his side when we tackled Averitha's forces.

Jas is out but Everett is waiting for me when I bound over, my wound barely aching. "Hey, Ash," he nods to me, "what brings you out here?"

"What can I do to help? What's my part of the whole plan?"

Everett looks distinctively uncomfortable. "We have decided parts yet."

"Nonsense," I scoff, "Ray plans everything."

"Ray kept his plans to himself," Everett admits. "None of us are going to know our parts until they finish scouting. But don't worry," he adds when he sees my scowl. "I'll make sure Ray gives you a position. I don't think he's ready to let you out of his sight anyway. And we all know you'd just follow us out if we told you to stay here. We'd have to tie you down to keep you here."

"Nothing will keep me here while Ray goes." I say firmly.

Everett's eyes shine with slight amusement. The humor in his eyes comforts me. I want this peace to last. I know that when the battle is over and when Averitha is dead, I will remain in Solieron. The Colony will move on without me just as I will do the same with them.

"Ryker says you should be resting," Everett reminds me gently. "Take the day off. We won't have anything to do until Ray and Aurora comes back from scouting."

I hesitate for one moment longer. "Talk to Jas, will you?"

He looks confused at my request, but he must see the affection in my eyes because he laughs slightly. "Oh, you clever little fox. Are you trying to set us up? You know I like Jas already."

My heart tightens slightly at the way he says her name. He looks so calm in the moment, his green eyes warm. There is no panic, no fear in him, no urgency for him to go to Jas and hold her before its too late. I don't know why this makes me so sad.

"Just...tell her, okay?" I try to smile and fail.

Everett's eyes soften. "Okay, I will."

I go back to my den as instructed and I let Ryker fuss over me. Aurora and Ray come back, though only Aurora peeks her head in. "We'll be ready tomorrow morning to set out. Are you good to go?"

"Of course." I insist. "I'm ready."

Ray comes in late at night and curls up around me. His warmth chases away my nightmares and I nestle against him as I fall asleep, praying to the stars above us that tomorrow will not be our last.

NINE

"Ambush!" I wake up to cries out outrange and fury. I jerk awake, sitting upright in my nest as I blink sleep out of my eyes. "Solieron is under attack!"

I can't tell who is shouting. It takes me awhile to get my bearing and Everett sticks his head into the den. "You awake?" He shouts over the noise.

I hurtle out of the den to get to his side. Ray is nowhere to be seen and I feel a rush of panic and disorientation. "Where's Ray?" I yell back, trying to avoid the fighting cats as I struggle to stay by Everett's side. I'm not much of a fighter and he knows it. He tries to protect me against any cats who are trying to attack us.

"I don't know," he shakes his head. "But we have to help save Solieron."

I don't need to ask to know that Averitha has found us. "How?" I blurt out as Everett kills our way out of the crowd. "How did she find us?"

He looks uncharacteristically grim. "Trial and error," he reckons, "or she's been searching for us since we escaped her grasp the first time. Either way, we need to get everyone out of here or else they'll all be slaughtered. Help me keep a look out for the others!"

I don't know who he means by "others", as that can either mean Jas, Aurora, Ryker, and Ray, or it could mean the entire camp. Nevertheless, I try to help him fight off Averitha's forces as we wade our way through blood and gore. I ignore the stickiness of the blood and leap over a fallen cat to stay at Everett's side. I search the gaze for a familiar black pelt, but he's nowhere to be seen. I pray that he is safe.

Jas finds us soon enough and for a brief moment, Everett and her touch noses. I don't get much time to admire the moment because Aurora comes hurtling after the gray she-cat. "Ryker's hurt! We have to evacuate!"

"Where's Ray?" I repeat my question.

Aurora ignores me. She races away again, this time with both Everett and Jas in tow. I hesitate for a split second before sprinting after them. No point in getting lost in this fray when I can barely protect myself. Chances are Ray is with Ryker anyway.

The russet brown tom is stowed away in a random den where Aurora has already bound his side with a swath of cobwebs. "It's not a pretty sight," she warns. "And I'm not the expert healer around here. We need to get him real help soon."

"Where's Ray?" I repeat for the third time when I realize the jet black tom is nowhere to be seen.

"I don't know!" Aurora snaps. "For stars sake, he's probably fighting outside!"

I almost believe her. It sounds plausible, as the others had been fighting to save Solieron. It's logical that Ray would feel the need to fight alongside his citizens to save a camp he has protected for his whole life.

But I notice the way Everett and Jas exchange pained glances. At the way Aurora lashes her tail and glances worriedly at Ryker, with guilt and love written all over her face. In seconds, all of that is gone, but it's too late for them to hide it from me.

Cold washes over me. At first it's deep panic, but then I realize it's fury. The cold spreads until I can't feel my paws and I stumble a bit as I try to take a step towards the exit of the den. Everett catches me with a grunt but I shove away from him.

"Ash." He says softly.

"He lied to me." I whisper.

There is genuine pain in all of their eyes as I stare at them. "No," I shake my head vigorously, backing up slowly until I hit the wall of the den. "No, no, no. He promised." My voice breaks on that one word. That heartbreaking, traitorous word.

"He didn't mean to," Jas says gently, as if they need to be careful with what they say. Perhaps they do, because each word feels like a stone hitting my heart. "But the cats of Solieron are dying around us. He doesn't want to lose his cats because he couldn't give up himself."

I can't breathe. The den closes around me and I stare widely at the four of them. Aurora has her paws pressed against Ryker's wound and just like that, my fear and rage unclenches and tears fill my eyes. I wipe them away furiously with one paw. Now's not the time for me to wallow in my grief.

Sure enough, the fighting outside stops. Everett peeks his head out to see what's going on. "Averitha's gone," he notes when he comes back in. "We've lost a good number of cats but most are okay." He doesn't mention Ray though my heart clenches.

"I can get Ryker help," I say, keeping my voice as steady as I can. "The Colony have healers that can help him."

"Let's go," Jas nods for me to go ahead. "I'll come with you so we can get back faster. You haven't learned your way back to Solieron yet."

Pushing Ray out of my mind, I hurry with Jas towards the Colony, praying we could come back in time to get Ryker to proper treatment he needed. I would not let Ray's sacrifice go in vain.

I'm not going to let Averitha inflict anymore pain on my friends anymore.

~

We're almost to the camp where I had first met Ray when the forest goes silent. I skid to a halt, my ears pricked. Jas brakes to a stop next to me. "What's wrong?" She stares at me as I survey the Dark Woods around us. "Why are we stopping?"

I shake my head. "Nothing." The word sounds so fake to my ears.

Jas is looking at me curiously but I hurry along again. I try to shake the feeling away but it clings like a burr until we get to the camp. Jas keeps glancing at me but I spot the camp. I charge right in, ignoring the nagging feeling in my stomach.

The gray she-cat follows behind me and I swallow my fear as the silence blankets over this camp as well. I search in vain for any signs of the cats but there's no one in sight.

"Hello?"

Jas stops alongside me. "What's going on, Ash?" Jas whispers. "Where did everyone go? Everett said that they were camped here, didn't he?"

"Yeah..." Panic ice my veins. "He certainly did."

"Then where is everyone?"

"That is the question, isn't it?" A pleasant voice washes over me. I choke out a sob of disbelief as I spin around. No, it can't be. Ray said--Ray promised.

"Why did the two of you come running back so quickly? I was a little surprised when my Beast informed me of your arrival. Of course, it took some time for me to get him to talk, but then I caught scent of you two anyway. Is there something wrong? Perhaps a friend of yours needs assistance?"

"You gave your word you wouldn't touch the Colony. You said you wouldn't harm them if Ray went with you." I feel trapped under her violet gaze.

Averitha smiles a lover's smile. "I didn't harm them. I merely asked them to hurry away from my forest. I gave my word I would never attack them again, so long as they do the same to me. The Dark Woods are mine and they have always been mine."

Jas is shaking next to me. "Why are you here?" She hisses.

"Why are you here?" Averitha's eyes glow with hatred, yet she smirks with amusement. "The two of you played right into my paws. And I thought Ashlyn darling would get it when she felt the woods lose its bird song."

The silence. The heavy blanket of a dead forest. That eternal silence had been what had warned me something was wrong with the Dark Woods in the first place. I back up a step, only to crash into Jas. "We don't want a quarrel." I tell her, "We'll just be going--"

"I want to make a proposal with you," her eyes glimmer. "I think you'll like it."

"Like it?" Jas repeats.

The golden she-cat flicks her tail lazily. "After all, your friend needs medical treatment, doesn't he? I rubbed a little poison on my claws before the battle. He was one of the first I clawed down. I don't think the poison wore off yet when I got to him."

"Poison?" Jas pales.

I can feel myself drowning in my sudden fear, trying to claw my way to the surface. Ryker would have known there was poison in the wound; he is the healer after all. But none of us knows how to treat poison, especially not if we don't know what it is.

Averitha's violet eyes glow with satisfaction when she sees the realization hit us. I grit my teeth as I step forward. "Ash--" Jas says desperately behind me.

"We have no choice." I wave my tail at her to shush her. "Let me handle this."

I turn back to Averitha, who smiles faintly. "What is your bargain?" I demand.

"I want both of you to come along first," Averitha beckons with her tail. "It's no fun until we get to the my place. How will I play with you out here? My Beast will want a run at this as well, as part of his bargain." She bares her teeth in a feral smile.

My heart pounds in horror. What had she done to Ray? Jas is trembling, muttering prayers under her breath. "Both of us?"

"It'll be no fun if one of you runs home to tell the others what poison might have been on my claws. Plus, it'll be more fun this way. It's been awhile since I've had toys to play with." She pushes us along. "Don't worry, I'll make sure it's worth your time."

I can only exchange helpless glances with Jas as Averitha ushers us out of the camp and deep into the Dark Woods.

TEN

We walk a long way before we reach a massive stone wall that surrounds the entirety of Averitha's camp. I watch as the guards bow respectfully to her as we pass by and they close the stone gates again the moment we're inside. Jas isn't shaking anymore, and I realize that might have been an act for Averitha to see.

I will my heart to stop pounding so hard. I have to be strong for my friends. For Ray.

I spot him before he sees the rest of us as Averitha shoves us into the largest den at the center of the camp. He is conversing with a gorgeous looking she-cat when our entrance makes him look up. His face is a mask of disinterest and boredom, almost as if he is irritated that we had interrupted his conversation with the she-cat.

Then his eyes land on Jas, and then he looks at me. Shock--pure shock--flashes across his face as he gapes at us. He doesn't hide one bit of his emotions as he blatantly stares.

"What," he asks, standing, the she-cat beside him forgotten, "is the meaning of this, Mistress?"

"Some playthings for you," Averitha purrs, her violet eyes scornful as she takes in Ray's dismay with glee. "Two pretty she-cats for you to mar and have fun with."

Ray swallows, his throat moving with the action. "Playthings?" He repeats, the word sounding like acid on his tongue. "Excuse me?"

Averitha just jerks her head at the she-cat, an obvious dismissal for her. The she-cat sniffs slightly, only to realize who she is facing and pales before running out of the den as fast as her dainty legs can take her. Ray is still staring at me, devastation clearly written all over his face.

"You gave your word you would not harm them." Ray says through gritted teeth.

"I did," Averitha sounds regretful. "But you did not promise you would not hurt them. One of your friends is in dire need of medical assistance. I will not offer that assistance until you can help me win the war versus the Colony once more."

"Win the war?" Ravyn shakes his head. "You promised not to wage war on them anymore as well. You've already taken the Dark Woods back. I've given myself up to you. You should be satisfied."

"I would be, had your friends not come running into my grasp. I don't play to lose, Ravyn. Obey me, show me you are my Beast, and I will consider sparing your friends. If you give me your word you will help me win this war, I will never set my eyes upon your camp again and I will personally send a healer to heal your friend." Averitha curls her tail around her paws, smiling slightly. "So, Ravyn, what will it be?"

"You want me to wipe out the Colony," Ray repeats, his golden eyes still frozen to my face. I'm unable to look away from him as well. "And then you'll spare Solieron and my friends."

"Yes."

Ray takes a deep breath. "No!" Jas cries out, "Don't do it, Ray. We'll fight her--"

"You'll release all my friends too," Ray cuts in, ignoring Jas's cries of fury. "You won't keep them here for your pleasure. I want all my friends free and safe from you. You have to give your word you won't ever try to harm them ever again."

"I give my word." Averitha waves her tail lazily. "I'm growing older, Ravyn. Make your decision or the pretty gray she-cat gets it." She points at Jas.

Ray doesn't even hesitate. "You have my word as well."

"Ray--" Jas groans, but Ray's eyes are still on me. My chest is too tight for this den, too tight to be this close to him. He's never felt so far away before. I look away, unable to keep staring into the depths of those golden eyes, his sadness and guilt washing over me like the endless wave of an ocean.

This is not how I imagined it would be. When Ray said the cost of peace would be him, I had thought Averitha would carve him up and send him back to Solieron for us to see. Yet he is merely the Beast again, a prisoner to Averitha but not dead.

From the haunting look in Ray's eyes, it is much worse than he had thought as well. I wonder how much he's already been forced to do, under the pretense that Averitha would keep us safe and would never dare harm us.

"I want to make a bargain with you." I pipe up before I can stop myself. Averitha whirls around, surprise in her eyes. Surprise and pure hatred.

"Oh?" She sneers at me. "And what is your price for this bargain?"

"If I complete whatever task you have assigned me, then you will allow me to claim the tom I love. You will let us walk free and you will leave this place and never come back."

"So many requests for one little bargain." Averitha's eyes glitter. Her eyes slide to Ray and the hunger in them make me realize why she has hated me from the moment I stepped foot into Ray's life. She has noticed that this entire time Ray has kept his attention on me rather than her. "But if you complete my task, I will do as you ask."

"Ashlyn--" Ray stiffens from where he sits.

I ignore him. Jas is desperately trying to get my attention, but I keep my eyes on the golden she-cat. "Name your task." I lift my chin in a challenge.

Averitha bares her teeth in a feral grin and I know immediately I've made a mistake. "Kill Ravyn."

My breath hitches. I should have known that she would twist my words so that there was no way I could win. Ray's eyes widen until his pupils disappear in the sea of gold. I can't breathe.

Averitha laughs. "Can't? I should have known you had a weak heart. Looks like Ray will remain my Beast and all of you will play by my rules."

I sag a bit in relief and she flicks her tail. "Ravyn, take them to your den. If you try to escape with them I will rip their hearts out and then finish the job with the rest of your friends regardless of my promise. If you finish my task, then I will do what I have promised." She smirks at me. "That goes for both of you."

Ravyn stands slowly and he leads us deeper into the cave of a den and into an entrance that is flanked by two guards. As soon as we all enter, they draw a sheet of bramble over it. "A prisoner?" Jas blurts out. "I thought she coveted you as her Beast."

"That was the first time, before we betrayed her." Ray sighs and plops down on the hard ground. He gives us both a hard look. "What are you guys doing here? I told you to stay put in Solieron and fight the battles you're supposed to."

"We were trying," Jas snaps. "But Averitha poisoned Ryker."

"What?" Ray pales.

"Clean out your ears, Ray," Jas sounds impatient and I realize it's her distress. "Ryker's poisoned. You heard what Averitha said: she has the medical assistance that Ryker needs. We were trying to find the Colony medics in order to get Ryker the help he needs but Averitha intercepted us. This is all a sick game and you fell for it."

Ray scowls at Jas's harsh words. "She's right, Ray," I say softly. "You might pride yourself to be an excellent planner who takes account to everything but you were played. Averitha knows exactly how to weave a trap for you and make you useless."

The black tom wordlessly buries his face into his paws, his chest heaving slightly. Jas stays frozen where she stands but I cross over to where Ray sits. I'm tentatively to touch him but he looks up as I draw closer, smelling me. "We need to think outside of the box if we want to defeat Averitha." I don't know where I'm going with this, but I'm hoping to trigger Ray's brains. He's always been a smart one.

Ray doesn't lift his head. Jas stays where she is, the panic in her icy blue gaze still there. Guess it's up to me, the huntress from the Colony, to think of something brilliant enough to break us out.

An idea forms in my head. A ruthless, stupid idea.

"What if we played her game? We wager war against the Colony and win. Averitha would love it if we caused a scene and shed a lot of blood."

Jas stares at me incredulously. "You would sacrifice so many innocent lives to defeat Averitha?"

"Nobody says Averitha knows what the Colony cats look like."

"You would still be killing innocents, regardless of who we will." Jas shakes her head slowly. "That's asking too much of Ray."

Ray is lifting his head though, realization sparking in his eyes. "Unless we switch the forces we're fighting." He rasps from where he is. "Averitha's cronies will never rest even after she is dead; we need them gone anyway."

Jas shakes her head slowly as she processes this. "You're crazy."

Ray grins a little as he meets my gaze, his golden eyes bright again. "Not any crazier than we've been since day one."

~

We plan all night and in the morning, Ray convinces Averitha to let Jas and I help him. We're watched constantly, but in the final steps of the plan, Ryker's health is enough to convince Averitha that we won't run off on our mission. It's a risky one, as we'll need to fake the death of a few Colony cats in order to allow them to infiltrate Averitha's camp. The only part we haven't truly figured out is how we're going to switch the forces and make Averitha slaughter her own cats.

Ray even bribes someone to send a message for us to Solieron. We'll need all the help we can get if we're going to execute this plan.

When Ray comes to me at night again, his eyes show his heavy exhaustion. Jas is already curled up and sleeping, but I refuse to sleep until I know Ray is okay. "You're still awake?" He murmurs.

"I wanted to check on you."

"I'm fine."

I know he's not, but I let him tell the lie anyway. "Have you figured out a way to switch the camps yet?" It's not something we can really control, but Ray is an expert on deception. He had done it to Averitha for moons before I arrived.

"No," Ray gives a frustrated shake of his head. "Our best bet is to trick Averitha into thinking the cats she has here on hand are actually Colony cats in disguise."

Hard to do, considering Averitha's cronies had a distinct savageness to them no one else could replicate. "Averitha knows her cats."

Ray lifts his shoulders and drops them in a shrug. "I don't know what else to do," he says hopelessly. "This was a brilliant plan the night before, but now I have no ideas. We're stuck, Ash, and I don't know what to do."

I glance behind me to make sure Jas is still asleep. I long to reach for Ray and to erase the sadness in his eyes by holding him close to me, but now's not the time for such dreams. We would live to see another day. We would live to experience another day. I had to believe that.

Another ridiculous idea forms in my head. I've been pondering over this idea for the past few hours, waiting for Ray to come back. "I think I can make this work." I lean in close and whisper my ideas into Ray's ear.

When I'm done, Ray leans back and smirks. "Ashlyn, darling, who knew you could be so cunning?"

I only beam back in response.

ELEVEN

When the plan is set into motion just five days later, I'm a little jittery. The messenger Ray bribed has already gotten word to Solieron and Everett and Aurora have headed to the Colony to help. They're coming this evening with the final pieces of my plan before we can launch the attack on Averitha and her cats. I'm nervous--too nervous to do anything properly yet I manage to keep a straight face when presented to Averitha.

Jas and I pretend to be cowardly, the same fearful cats she snared for Ravyn. I mope around the den, "planning" with Ray and Jas to attack the Colony, plastering a hateful expression whenever we mentioned the slaughter of the cats I had once called my family and friends.

Averitha delighted in watching us suffer, drinking in our sorrow as if it was real. Jas pretended to cry about Ryker every now and then, pushing past it and going as far as yelling at me to get me back on track for the preparation on our war against the Colony.

The golden she-cat believed every word, every moment of it.

Ray slips out in the day, given permission from Averitha to scout the camp. It took some convincing, but he managed to get her to let him go without guards. "You have my friends," he said quietly to her earlier in the day, "I cannot leave without them."

It was enough to convince Averitha that Ravyn wouldn't run away and try to cheat his way out of his bargain. Indeed, if he didn't return in the night, Averitha would carve Jas and I open until Ray came running back. She believed him to be trapped.

Jas and I wait impatiently the entire day, masking our worry with frustration that we are being forced to attack innocents. Averitha gleefully watches us pace and snarl, thinking that we are just wallowing in our misery and accepting our final fate.

I can't help but wonder if Averitha would really let us go if we actually waged war on the Colony and slaughtered them. Ray had adamantly believed in her word, yet Averitha played his paw and caught us with her plan anyway. Her word had meant nothing when we were all still pawns in her game.

"It's time," Jas murmurs in my ear, just as Ray stalks back in. His golden eyes are dim and dull, a way to trick Averitha into thinking that he is resigned to killing the Colony. "How was your scouting?" She addresses him.

"Fine," Ray snaps. Averitha smirks at our fraying patience, at our lack of control. "We attack tonight."

"I want a walk around the camp before we go," I blurt out. "Just some peace and quiet between you and me." I don't want to leave Jas behind but if all three of us go, we won't have enough privacy for the plan. Jas nods subtley at me, even though she casts a fearful glance at Averitha, already thinking about what horrors might await her when we're out.

"Don't stay out too long," Averitha coos, "Don't forget you have another pretty she-cat waiting for you back here." Her violet gaze cuts to Jas, who shivers slightly.

"It'll be fast." Ray mutters, guiding me out. Mercifully, no guards follow us, though the eyes in the camp are enough to keep us leashed.

We stroll around, with Ray pretending to give me loving comforts but instead, he is whispering the details in my ear. "Aurora and Everett are already in, along with the Colony soldiers. The camp doesn't know its own members well enough to spot them but once we point out the noticable Colony members, Averitha will be convinced that this camp is actually overrun with Colony cats and she'll try to launch an attack. We will have the advantage though and she will be surprised when we retaliate with an army."

"Solieron cats?"

"I couldn't drag them into this."

I feel a beat of sad anger when I realize that no matter how much Ray will sacrifice for others, he will not risk his cats for the Colony. It simply isn't worth the risk. I loved him enough to not dwell on it, but...

Ray sees it on my face. "If this fails," he says softly. "I want Solieron to thrive, to keep going. I don't want everyone I love to die."

"Aurora and Everett are here." I turn away from him. "No one will save Solieron when we are all dead and gone."

Those are perhaps the cruelest words I can say to him but Ravyn just walks behind me the entire way back, not saying a single word. I want to apologize, but it's true. I want to tell him I love him again, but I know that he knows. I will not waste my breath letting Averitha see how much it pains me to think about whether or not we will survive tonight.

"Are your plans ready?" Averitha asks, a greeting for her Beast. Jas remains unharmed, though her eyes are a bit wide from where she crouches.

"Yes." Ray says without hesitation. "Although...I need you to check something. I suspect something is going on within your camp."

"What?" Averitha's eyes flash. She rushes to the door, Ray following slowly. "Tell me what you suspect, Beast." An order, as if Ray is still her obedient subject, not a poor tom she ensnared all those moons ago. Not the tom she lured back in because she wanted to bed him.

"Are these all your cats?" Ray asks smoothly, pointing to the milling cats.

On cue, a few Colony cats stroll by, ducking their heads, trying to fit in. My heart lurches when I realize Jade walks among those cats. She had volunteered for this? Her eyes flit up and she stares at me for a few seconds before turning away. A sign for me. She hadn't forgotten me when I had disappeared into the Dark Woods. For all I've been through, all I'm fighting against, she will support and help me.

"Those are Colony cats." Averitha spits out. "There are spies within my midsts."

She whirls on me and Jas. I open and close my mouth, my heart in my throat. Behind Averitha, Ray's eyes widen. "You." She snarls, lunging for me in one swift motion. Ray cries out but I know he won't be fast enough to stop the blow. My paws struggle to come up in time, to avoid the death that is almost upon me.

Ray doesn't make it in time, but Jas does.

She dives in front of me, shoving me away. I scream as I tumble into Ray and he rights me as I see Averitha's claws plunge into Jas's stomach. I scream again as she lets out a horrible gasp and falls limp on the floor, blood gushing from her wound.

No, no, no. Our plan is already falling apart. "Ravyn." I whisper. "Ravyn! Help her!" I plead, turning to him.

But he is frozen, staring at Jas's limp form. Averitha turns back to us, rage glowing in her eyes but before she can move, before I can shriek at Ray to think of something, the den around us explodes and in comes the rest of our army.

Everett is the first one through and his claws find their way through the guards standing at the back. His eyes land on beautiful Jas's body and the roar that escapes him thunders through the remains of the den as he hurtles for Averitha.

But the golden she-cat is faster and she disappears, escaping out the last entrance and disappearing into the throngs of fighting cats.

My heart is pounding and I turn to find Ray gone. A black streak rushes after Averitha and I know with all my heart that he will not let her live to see the end of the day. Not with Jas bleeding out behind me.

"Jas." Everett whispers, falling to his knees before the gray she-cat. "Jasmine."

Her eyes flutter open and shut. "Everett." She breathes out, her focus solely on the golden tom before her.

I know I shouldn't be here--I should be giving them time to say goodbye. But my paws are rooted to the ground and I stare at them. We could get a healer, I plead to myself, we could--

She had lost too much blood. Anyone will be too late to save her.

Everett's eyes are filled with so much anguish that I realize he's crying. "Jas," his voice breaks. "I--I love you. Please don't go."

Her eyes, those icy blue eyes fill with such warmth and sadness I realize I'm crying too. Aurora enters from behind me and I feel her presence as she stands behind me, waiting for Everett to finish his farewells.

"I love you," Jas whispers back, before her eyes close. Her chest heaves one last desperate breath, and she murmurs Everett's name before falling still.

Deathly silence falls over us. Eternal silence, like the one in the Dark Woods.

Everett slowly stands. When he turns away, fury--plain, primal fury--burns in his eyes. "This camp goes down tonight," he says hoarsely. "Averitha is going to die."

When I find Ray and Averitha, they are panting and wrestling in the mud, both of them covered in fresh wounds and cuts, bleeding heavily. Their pelts are ruffled and smeared with a mixture of mud and blood and I can't help but feel my heart lurch in fear as I witness Ray struggling to defeat her. I feel myself strain to help him, but even Everett--whose eyes shine with hatred for all Averitha has done--stays put, though he digs his claws deep into the dirt.

"You deserve to suffer." Ray pants. "But I will keep your death short."

"You may believe that you can beat me," Averitha snarls, "but I will draw out your pain and suffering. The pretty gray she-cat is only the first. Who shall I kill next, Ravyn? You? Your pretty toy? How about the scarred guard who took your lashings the other day?"

Ray doesn't respond; he just beats her back down. A swift glance behind him tells him all he needs to know. Our faces are bleak, a result from watching the liveliest she-cat die in front of us.

"You killed Jas." It isn't a question.

Averitha laughs, a cackling one. "I would have killed Ashlyn instead but she got in the way."

Got in the way. I can feel my own anger pulsing through my blood but Ravyn spits at her. "I should have killed you so long ago," Averitha purrs. "But I will settle with torturing the rest of your friends with your death now."

No. I wouldn't let her kill the tom I loved. That is when Everett lunges, a golden streak in the air before he tackles Averitha, slamming her into a tree. Her head cracks with enough force that she groans. Ray lays on the ground, heaving deep breaths but he doesn't stop Everett as he digs his claws into Averitha.

"I should carve out your heart for what you did to Jas," Everett snarls, his eyes livid. "But I will do what Ray says and grant you a swift death."

True to his word, his claws punch out, swift and brutal.

Averitha is dead before she even hits the ground.

TWELVE

I stare at the small grave just outside of Solieron. A jet black stands next to me and he lays his flower down first. A red rose, to symbolize the bloody war our friend had fought against to keep innocent cats like Solieron safe.

The pure red of the rose reminds me of the amount of blood and had gushed out of her in her last moments in that horrible den. I can't help but match it with the brilliant red that stained the ground that day. A moon later and I still can't shake the image out of my mind.

A golden tom steps forward next, his pelt crisscrossed with scars from a lashing meant for the tom at my side. I can feel him stiffen as he watches the golden tom lay a light blue flower down on the dirt.

Light blue, for the color of her eyes. Eyes that had been icy calm the first time I met her, icy to the point where I had thought I was facing monsters. Light blue, for the light and happiness in her and the fact that she hadn't been a monster, but the kindest friend I had ever known.

A silver she-cat, whose pelt glows from the moonlight steps forward. Her pelt, more blue than gray sometimes, reminds all of us of our fallen friend. She lays a golden rose on the grave, with a swift glance at the golden tom who had stepped back, tears blurring both their gazes.

Golden, for the tom the she-cat had loved, for the tom she fought to keep safe. The tom who now carried a part of her around in his heart, locked away to keep the grief from being too overwhelming. I swallow hard, trying to keep my own tears at bay.

Then it is the turn of a limping tom, whose eyes still shone with tiredness from fighting the poison that had we'd barely been able to keep out of his system. He lays a purple flower down.

Purple, for her uniqueness, for the fact that she hadn't bowed down to the norms of society and for the compassion she fought with. The compassion she had shown all her friends, the compassion and kindness that had made me love her in the first place.

Had made us all love her.

Then it's my turn.

I stumble on my way to the grave, my ears watering. I blink them away quickly before I place a single white rose on the top of the dirt, next to all the other flowers already there.

White, for her purity, for her innocence. For the kind, gentle soul that now resides up in the stars, waiting for all of us to one day return to her side.

White, for the peace she had achieved by fighting alongside us in the final battles that had ended Averitha's cruel reign in the Dark Woods.

As I step back, I can't restrain my sobs as Ravyn wraps his tail around me and holds me close. "It's okay," he murmurs into my fur as he presses his muzzle to my head. "It'll be all right."

We would be all right. We would move on. We might not ever be able to stop grieving for beautiful Jasmine, the she-cat who had been the light of all our lives, but we would be able to move on. We would be able to let her go.

Everett stares at the flowers, love clear in his gaze. The sight of him, heartbroken but trying to let her go, breaks my heart. But we had all said our final goodbyes with our flowers. It is time to turn away and keep going.

We have already finished repairs on Solieron and Ray intends to help the Colony get back on its feet as well. The cats are recovering.

We are recovering.

One by one, we turn away.

Ryker and Aurora go first, tails intertwined, although they are careful not to let Everett see too much of their love. Aurora had come home after the battle, sobbing when the Colony medic had been able to save Ryker in time to stop the poison from working its way to his heart.

Ravyn and I turn away next, and I mentally whisper another goodbye to Jas, even though I know I will return here again another day.

We leave Everett behind by the grave to mourn. I try to talk to him, but he doesn't want to talk about Jas, or about those final days with Averitha. We are all broken in our own ways, but we are recovering. We are healing.

"Let's go home," Ray murmurs in my ear, even as Everett continues to sit there by the grave, watching over his loved one.

Home. It's been a long time since I've called anywhere home, but yes, Solieron was my home.

I let my mate walk me back and I let him take me to our shared den. And I realize that even if Solieron hadn't been my home, I had found it anyway. My home lay with my mate, the tom I had given myself up for in this war. A tom I would do anything to save.

I touch my nose to his and smile. "I love you, Ravyn."

He purrs. "You, Ashlyn, are my heart."

The Heart of the Beast.

THE END

AUTHOR'S NOTE

This is based off of Rhysand from A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas. I love this series to bits, especially the second book, where you actually get to meet Rhys and realize there's more to him than the first book provides. I based Ravyn off Rhys, and many elements of this short story reflects the actual series. I don't own either series and so many of the plotline ideas in this short story belongs to Sarah J Maas. I highly recommend that people read ACOTAR (but only if you are mature so high school???)

Anyway, I love this story because it let me create a shadow of Rhys, my all time favorite character. Although Ravyn is my own character (a novel character if I am to be honest [all the main characters: Ashlyn, Ryker, Ravyn, Everett, Jas] are all characters of a novel series I want to write), he is meant to represent Rhys and that pleases me beyond words.

I hope whoever reads this enjoyed it because it does contain a part of my heart, a special part meant for the stories of ACOTAR and the stories of my own heart. I did create most of the plot line within this story, but as I said before, the general of it kind of comes from ACOTAR :P

Comment if you enjoyed <3 and thank you for taking the time to read this!

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